十牛圖 Shiniu tu
The Ten Ox-herding Pictures
Commentary by Hsu Yun
Commentary by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Commentary by John M. Koller
Commentary by Alfonso Carrasco
Commentary by Rover Jack
Commentary by Aldous Huxley
Commentary by Jill N. Henry
Commentary by Ming Qi
Commentary by Wendy Tsang Wing Shan
Commentary by Osho
Commentary by Suzuki Shōsan (presented by Arthur Braverman and Sarah Berger)
Commentary by Claus Furstner
Commentary by Ruben Habito
Drawings by Mark T. Morse
Commentary on the Oxherding
Pictures by Hsu Yun (Hsü-yün)
The following is a composite of
several translations of Master Xu Yun's
"Eleven Stanzas on the Song in Praise of Tending an Ox as Requested by the Students of Gushan Buddhist Institute."
1. Pushing Aside the Grass to Look for the Ox
Wanting to break
through to Emptiness with my white cudgel
I cried out louder than the bellowing Ox, mooing through my senses.
I followed mountain and stream searching for the Ox, seeking it everywhere.
But I couldn't tell in which direction it had gone... west?... or east?
2. Suddenly Seeing Tracks
On I searched... into
the mountains and along the river banks.
But in every direction I went, I went in vain.
Who would have suspected that it was right where I stood;
That I needed only nod my head and my true Self would appear before me.
3. Seeing the Ox
Its wild nature is now
calmed in lazy sleep.
By the stream, under the trees, crushing the blades of dew laden grass
The Ox sleeps without a care.
At last I have found it... there with its great head and horns.
4. Piercing the Ox's Nose
I rush forward and
pierce the Ox's nose!
It wildly jerks and jumps
But I feed it when it is hungry and give it water when it thirsts.
Then I allow the Oxherding Boy to take care of it.
5. Training the Ox
I have supported you
with great care for many years
And you plow - not mud and water, but clouds!
From dawn until dusk, the natural grass sustains you
And you keep your master company by sleeping out of doors.
6. Returning Home Riding the Ox
What place in these
cloudy mountains is not my home?
There's greenery everywhere - so lush it's hard to tell
Crops from wild grasses. I don't intrude on planted fields.
I ride the Ox and let him graze along the roadside.
7. Keeping the Person Because of the Ox
I went from the city
to the edge of the sea
I returned riding backwards in a white ox wagon.
Into this painted hall comes a spinning red wheel.
The New Bride finally arrives, and from my own house!
8. The Bride and the Ox are Forgotten
I remember the old
days as I brush out dead ashes from the cold stove.
Silently, without a trace, I pace back and forth for no reason.
But today the ice is broken by a plum blossom!
A tiger roars, a dragon growls, and all the creatures of the universe surround me.
9. Returning to the Origin and the Essence
Every thing and every
creature under the sun has its own nature.
Hasn't this knowledge been passed down through generations?
When the Ox suddenly roars like a lion
Everything in the universe reveals such infinite variety.
10. Coming Home with Folded Hands
How wide are the
horizons of the spinning earth!
The moonlight leads the tides and the sun's light will not be confined
Within the net of heaven. But in the end all things return to the One.
The deaf and dumb, the crippled and deformed are all restored to the One's Perfection.
11. The Concluding Song
In the beginning there
was nothing, nor was anything lacking.
The paper was blank. We pick up the paint brush and create the scene...
The landscape, the wind whipping water into waves.
Everything depends upon the stroke of our brush.
Our Ox lets the good earth lead it,
Just as our brush allows our hand to move it.
Take any direction, roam the world to its farthest edge.
All comes back to where it started... to blessed Emptiness
I have decided to include the ten oxherding pictures, a well-known Zen representation of training of the mind, so basic that it could be considered fundamental to all schools of Buddhism. A deeper way of looking at it is in terms of spiritual development from Shravakayana to Maha Ati. In the Tibetan tradition there is an analogy of elephant herding but it refers largely only to the practice of shamatha. The symbolism does not go beyond the riding of the elephant. In the oxherding pictures the evolutionary process of taming the bull is very close to the Vajrayana view of the transmutation of energy. Particularly returning to the world as the expression of the compassion of the Nirmanakaya shows that the final realization of Zen automatically leads to the wisdom of Maha Ati.
The Search for the Bull
The inspiration for this first step, which is searching for the bull, is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain. You are looking for whatever it is that will make the situation right. You discover that ego's attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory.
Discovering the Footprints
By understanding the origin you find the possibility of transcending this pain. This is the perception of the Four Noble Truths. You see that pain results from the conflicts created by ego and discover the footprints of the bull, which are the heavy marks of ego in all play of events. You are inspired by unmistakable and logical conclusions rather than by blind faith. This corresponds to the Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana paths.
Perceiving the Bull
You are startled at perceiving the bull and then, because there is no longer any mystery, you wonder if it is really there; you perceive its insubstantial quality. When you begin to accept this perception of non-duality, you relax, because you no longer have to defend the existence of your ego. Then you can afford to be open and generous. You begin to see another way of dealing with your projections and that is joy in itself, the first spiritual level of the attainment of the Bodhisattva.
Catching the Bull
Seeing a glimpse of the bull, you find that generosity and discipline are not enough in dealing with your projections, because you have yet to completely transcend aggression. You have to acknowledge the precision of skilful means and the simplicity of seeing things as they are, as connected to fully developed compassion. The subjugation of aggression cannot be exercised in a dualistic framework - complete commitment into the compassionate path of the Bodhisattva is required, which is the development of patience and energy.
Taming the Bull
Once caught, the taming of the bull is achieved by the precision of meditative panoramic awareness and the sharp whip of transcendent knowledge. The Bodhisattva has accomplished the transcendent acts (paramitas) - not dwelling on anything.
Riding the Bull Home
There is no longer any question of search. The bull (mind) finally obeys the master and becomes creative activity. This is the breakthrough to the state of enlightenment - the Vajra-like samadhi of the Eleventh Bhumi. With the unfolding of the experience of Mahamudra, the luminosity and colour of the mandala become the music which leads the bull home.
The Bull Transcended
Even that joy and colour becomes irrelevant. The Mahamudra mandala of symbols and energies dissolves into Maha Ati through the total absence of the idea of experience. There is no more bull. The crazy wisdom has become more and more apparent and you totally abandon the ambition to manipulate.
Both Bull and Self Transcended
This is the absence of both striving and non-striving. It is the naked image of the primordial Buddha principle. This entrance into the Dharmakaya is the perfection of non-watching - there is no more criteria and the understanding of Maha Ati as the last stage is completely transcended.
Reaching the Source
Since there is already such space and openness and the total absence of fear, the play of the wisdoms is a natural process. The source of energy which need not be sought is there; it is that you are rich rather than being enriched by something else. Because there is basic warmth as well as basic space, the Buddha activity of compassion is alive and so all communication is creative. It is the source in the sense of being an inexhaustible treasury of Buddha activity. This is, then, the Sambhogakaya.
In the World
Nirmanakaya is the fully awakened state of being in the world. Its action is like the moon reflecting in a hundred bowls of water. The moon has no desire to reflect, but that is its nature. This state is dealing with the earth with ultimate simplicity, transcending following the example of anyone. It is the state of "total flop" or "old dog". You destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, you subdue whatever needs to to subdued, and you care for whatever needs your care.
Trungpa Rinpoche's commentary on the Oxherding (10 Bulls) pictures was first
published in Mudra by Shambhala Publications in 1972, pp. 73-93. Text is ©
copyright 1972 by Chögyam Trungpa.
Ox-Herding: Stages of Zen Practice
by John M. Koller
Department of Cognitive Science
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Koller, John. Asian
Philosophies, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. pp.
John M. Koller is a Professor of Asian and Comparative Philosophy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His research areas include Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy of Religion. He is the author of more than fifty journal articles and chapters in edited books as well as five books. In addition, he is the recipient of several prestigious teaching awards: Selected Outstanding Educator of America, 1975; Named Outstanding World Philosopher, 2005; Wm. H. Wiley Distinguished Faculty Award, 1986; and Rensselaer Distinguished Teaching Fellow, 1990-92.
The ten ox-herding pictures and commentaries presented here depict the stages of practice leading to the enlightenment at which Zen (Chan) Buddhism aims. They dramatize the fact that enlightenment reveals the true self, showing it to be the ordinary self doing ordinary things in the most extraordinary way.
The story of the ox and oxherd, separate at first, but united in the realization of the inner unity of all existence, is an old Taoist story, updated and modified by a twelfth century Chinese Buddhist master to explain the path to enlightenment. The ox symbolizes the ultimate, undivided reality, the Buddha-nature, which is the ground of all existence. The oxherd symbolizes the self, who initially identifies with the individuated ego, separate from the ox, but who, with progressive enlightenment, comes to realize the fundamental identity with the ultimate reality which transcends all distinctions. When this happens, the oxherd realizes the ultimacy of all existence; there is nothing that is not the Buddha-nature. He now understands the preciousness and profundity of the most ordinary things of life, illuminating ordinary living with his enlightenment.
The twelfth century monk Guo-an Shi-yuan (also known as Kuo-an Shih-yuan or Kakuan Shien) revised and expanded upon the traditional Taoist story of the ox and the oxherd by creating a series of ten images and accompanying verses to simultaneously depict and narrate this well-known tale. Guo-an’s version subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring versions of the parable. Nevertheless, despite the dominance of Guo-an’s paintings, other Zen Buddhists and artists have repeatedly repainted and retranslated Guo-an’s immortal verses throughout the following centuries. While the illustrations of the tale vary, the verses tend to be either direct or indirect translations of Guo-an’s original verses, and their message stands unchanged.
I. The Search for the Bull
The first picture shows the oxherd desperately looking everywhere for his lost ox. He is dissatisfied with his life, unable to find the true happiness that he seeks. His efforts to secure wealth, friends, fame, and pleasure have not brought him the fulfillment he is seeking. Like many of us, he is seeking something, though he is not sure exactly what it is, that will make life meaningful and bring him lasting happiness.
II. Discovering the Footprints
The second picture shows that the oxherd has now caught sight of the tracks of the ox, bringing hope that his ox is not lost forever. This could be interpreted to mean that he has recognized his distress and has begun to seek for a solution in the teachings of Buddhism or in other teachings. But he is still at the stage of thinking and talking about his problems and various possible solutions. He has not yet found a path to follow and has not yet started to practice.
III. Perceiving the Bull
In the third picture, the oxherd actually catches sight of the ox. Now, having started to practice, he glimpses the hidden powers to heal his suffering. But he does not yet understand the source of these powers and how to apply them in his search for peace and contentment. The verse, in saying that “I hear the song of the nightingale.//The sun is warm, the wind is mild, the willows are green along the shore.” suggests that the reality the oxherd glimpses is not something separate from the ordinary things that he experiences, even though he does not yet know this.
IV. Catching the Bull
The fourth picture shows that the oxherd has now caught hold of the ox, using the bridle of discipline to control it. This symbolizes the rigorous discipline required of the Zen practitioner. Although he now realizes that the power to transform his life lies within himself, in his Buddha-nature, all of his previous conditionings are pulling and pushing him in different directions. Holding the rope tightly means that he must work hard to overcome his bad habits of the past that developed through the ignorance, hatred and craving that gave rise to all of his afflictions.
V. Taming the Bull
The fifth picture shows that disciplined practice can overcome the bad habits of previous conditioning and bring one into accord with the true nature of reality. Although discipline is still needed because the old habits of mind still have power, living in greater awareness of the true reality gives one the energy and direction to live a wholesome life. Now the ox willingly follows the oxherd home, meaning that the separation between oneself and true reality is being overcome.
VI. Riding the Bull Home
The sixth picture suggests the tranquility and joy that reunion with the source of existence brings; now the oxherd rides on the back of the ox, joyously playing his flute. The verse suggests that he has been freed from old fears and anxieties and that so freed, he can now express his creative energies in celebration of life.
VII. The Bull Transcended
In the seventh picture the oxherd has realized his identity with the ox; the ox can be forgotten, for it is none other than the experience of everyday things. This can be interpreted to mean that the separation of practice and realization has been overcome, as has the separation of ordinary reality and the ultimate reality. Until now he has been practicing meditation as a means of achieving enlightenment. But with realization of the non-duality of existence comes awareness of the identity of means and ends; practice itself is realization.
VIII. Both Bull and Self Transcended
The eighth picture tells us that when the duality of self and reality has been overcome not only is reality (the ox) forgotten, but so is the self (the oxherd); the circle symbolizes the all-encompassing emptiness that constitutes the ground of all things. Now, in the awareness of unceasing transformation and total interconnectedness in every experience one is freed from all craving and hatred for the other. In this freedom there is a sense of the wholeness and perfection of ordinary things.
IX. Reaching the Source
As the ninth picture shows, when self and reality (as constructs) are left behind, then things are revealed to be just what they are in themselves; streams meander on of themselves and red flowers naturally bloom red. In the ordinary events of life are found the most profound truths. Only by seeking the ox as a separate ultimate reality could the oxherd discover that there is no separate reality; that the ultimate is to be found in the ordinary.
X. In the World
Finally, the tenth picture shows the enlightened oxherd entering the town marketplace, doing all of the ordinary things that everyone else does. But because of his deep awareness everything he does is quite extraordinary. He does not retreat from the world, but shares his enlightened existence with everyone around him. Not only does he lead fishmongers and innkeepers in the way of the Buddha but, because of his creative energy and the radiance of his life, even withered trees bloom.
for the Bull
En busca del toro (Cuento Zen): http://www.shotokai.com/filosofia/en_busca_del_toro.html
The drawings that are shown here represent the steps that lead to spiritual illumination. These are modern versions of those by painter Tomikichiro Tokuriki. He himself created them based on the original drawings by Chinese Master Chino Kukuan, from the XII century; and these from previous Taoist stories.
They symbolize the combination of the sacred and the profane. The bull represents the animal nature in every human being, it is united to the spiritual nature. The struggle to harmonize the physical impulses and appetites is equivalent to also integrating those of the spirit. The student can use the images to evaluate his advancement or discover in which stage of the spiritual path he is at.
First image : The Search for the Bull
(There are variations in the drawings of the bull and the names given to each stage. I will use "man/men/his/he" in generic form, representing both men and women. Trans.)
This stage represents man when he still doesn't know his true nature, but one way or another, has already started his search. He wishes to find it, though he doesn't even know what it is, nor is he sure of recognizing it when he finds it. Sometimes he experiments with the search as an escape from his present circumstances, that in general are not pleasant. Life as it is, is a heavy load and - he thinks - surely there must be a better way of living. Most of those that have started the "search" are at this stage.
Second image: Finding the path
At this stage, the searcher finds indications, clues in one or more spiritual traditions, he is attracted by books of wisdom, he assists to conferences on the subject, he meets masters and notices that there are others that have followed the same path, he is not the first person to have noticed that there is something subtle to attain. This stage, generally, starts with yoga practice, meditation or other disciplines. Through these he experiences sensations related to the spirit. In the first image the farmer searches all over, without a specific order, whereas in the second image his search is more focussed and better oriented.
Third image: The first glimpse.
This would be considered the first spiritual experience, the student gets to see his true self and feel the kundalai energy that awakens within him. It is equivalent to the first contact with the master that initiates him or transmits him his energy. Kundalai energy is both physical and spiritual in nature. The searcher's objective will be to elevate this energy towards his consciousness instead of repressing or eliminating the animal within. This first insight can also originate from religious experiences in the form of celestial visions. As a summary, the first sight is any kind of vision or unusual experience that stimulates the individual to follow the path towards that which is transcendental.
Fourth image: Capturing the bull
The farmer has caught the animal but it is still stubborn and does not follow him. He has finally caught it but it is obstinate and uncontrolled. Its energy and decision are relentless, at times it runs toward the hills, at other times it stays unmovable in deep impenetrable valleys. It symbolizes our struggle with our basic nature, something that can last a whole lifetime. At this stage a person must analyse if he is advancing and attaining a clearer understanding or he is simply stuck and protecting himself behind certain doctrines or ideas related to spiritual practice.
Fifth image: Taming the bull
This represents the control of our physical or animal nature, this is attained by knowing it, in other words, listening and dialoging with it. The farmer is now directing the bull with the reins and controls it to the extent that the bull lets himself be guided. Little by little the man becomes the master. What he does at this stage is unite his conciousness with the animal nature (basic nature). For example, a professional animal trainer knows that using force you do not tame the animal, only harmonizing his conciousness with the animal conscience can he attain that. This is why many of the effective spiritual development formulas do not try to conquer, dominate, destroy or eliminate the ego, rather they teach you to live in harmony with it. Actually, it is the ego or the mind itself, that promotes the search of one's Self and it must go through all the stages. Thus to talk about eliminating it is absurd.
Sixth image: Riding the bull home
In the Hindu culture, Gods and Goddesses are represented riding on animals as their vehicle. The animal symbolizes the inferior nature that the man dominates and with which he has a good relationship. One must feed and take care of the biological part of our being, without abusing nor relaxing too much. This way the physical vital force becomes an ally. In the drawing we can see how the man is riding the bull without reins, the bull knows where to go and that's where it goes without being directed. He is playing the flute placidly on the back of the bull. The struggle is over, the man has attained the state of enlightment.
Seventh image: The trascended bull
The farmer is alone and happy, sitting by his house, the bull is no longer visible. The man has become one with the Being. Instead of the former efforts, a state of peace and happiness reigns.
Trancendence is a recurring or temporal experience of unity, beyond dualities. It is an exceptional state of conscience. When we live in a dual world, we always experience the opposites: inside - out, happiness - saddness, success - failure, etc. Duality starts with birth and ends with death. Actually, we live not only in duality, but rather multiplicity. Whereas transcendence implies a unity experience, not duality, not multiplicity, that shows us our true nature.
Eighth image: The bull and Self trascended
All has fused itself into nothingness. We can only observe a circle, with nothing inside, which means all opposites have disappeared. At this stage the man can't even say "I'm illuminated" or "I'm not illuminated", they don't exist for him, Unity is all that exists.
Ninth image: Back to the origin
In this image we can see nature in all its splendour, flowers, birds, the river, mountains. It represents what happens after the trascendental experience. Outside the illuminated man, nothing has changed, only man himself has been transformed. He reenters life with different eyes, a new center with another focus guides him. Each time he so wishes he can go within himself and see life through it. All is in peace.
Tenth image: In the world
Buddha, after attaining the state of illumination, almost didn't come out again and return to the world. His compassion for all beings finally took hold and the rest of his life he dedicated to intense social work that transformed culture and society in his time. In this drawing the illuminated man now directs himself to other beings to help them. He puts all his wisdom at their service.
Ten Oxherding Pictures—sometimes called “Ten Bulls”—and
their accompanying text are a very old teaching tool in Zen. The images are a
series of graphic illustrations that stand for potential stages in Zen
development, on the path to realizing one's true nature. They explain a lesson
in gaining knowledge or achieving insight. They focus on an ox and a young
The ten oxherding pictures have been rendered in various styles including watercolors, black-brush painting, ceramics, and woodblock prints. As popular as the pictures are, the original author of the series is uncertain. Most of the credit goes to Kaku-an Shi-en, a Chinese Zen master who lived and taught during the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279. But during his time Kaku-an mentioned another Zen master called Seikyo who also used this method to portray Zen development. Seikyo depicted the ox as visually fading away until it disappeared entirely. In Kaku-an's version—which I present—all participants remain to the end because Kaku-an felt that awareness, not emptiness, was the goal of Zen.
We won't quibble about whose rendition of the oxherding pictures is good, better, or best. Nor does it matter in what medium the pictures are executed. As we study the ten pictures let your mind absorb the illustrations and their message, with no pre-set notions or judgments.
Without giving away the plot I’ll tell you up front the ox represents enlightenment, and the oxherd represents you.
A contemporary Zen scholar named Urs App mentions that Zen sees the “I” as the very problem. Thus the herder, who has an “I” just as all of us have, searches for what he truly is. The object of the search is represented by an ox. The quest extends from seeing faint traces to the complete overcoming of the problematic “I” to the emergence of nature as it truly is.
The pictures I usually use in my talks are copies of paintings by Sensei Gyokusei Jikihara (available from Mount Tremper Zen Center). The opening words for each image are my adaptation of a 1966 English translation from the Japanese, mixed in with thoughts of D.T. Suzuki. First I’ll read the relevant excerpt of Kaku-an’s poetic text for each picture, then I’ll give the simplified explanation.
I suppose that if today the same sort of teaching were used, instead of an ox the vehicle might be a stretch limousine, and instead of an oxherd the seeker might be a female bank president.
The pictures, in order, are titled:
— Searching for the ox.
— Discovering traces of the ox.
— Seeing the ox.
— Catching the ox.
— Taming the ox.
— Coming home on the ox's back.
— The ox forgotten, leaving the herder alone.
— Ox and herder gone.
— Returning to the source.
— Entering the marketplace.
As we go on this
journey, remember that the oxherd is a metaphor for you. Don’t
evaluate the pictures. Don’t analyze the story. Just look and listen.
Picture Number 1. Searching for the Ox.
“Pushing aside the weeds of illusion he looks for the ox in the wild. Through swollen rovers and distant mountains his path leads farther and farther. His strength exhausted, he’s in despair. There’s no more place to search. Yet hear that lonely autumn song of a cicada in a maple tree.”
The animal—signifying one’s inherent Buddha-nature—has never gone away, so why search for it? The herder doesn’t have a close relationship with the ox because he has always been led by societal delusions. In such a life his true home fades, and the various paths that he stumbles along are ever more confusing and confining. Owing to society’s pressures, his mind is fixed on thoughts of achieving gain and he looks at everything in terms of right and wrong. Still, there is something bright and clear that calls to him.
Picture Number 2. Discovering traces of the ox.
“By a river among the trees footprints here and there! Wild thickets, weeds…. Did he now just catch a glimpse of it? Deep into the mountains his path leads far astray. Its nose may reach the heavens, yet would it leave no trace?”
By earnestly looking into the basic concepts of Zen the herder has received a glimmering of insight. He has come upon some evidence, some clues. He sees that the objective world is a reflection of the self. Yet, his mind is confused about truth and is misled by false notions that have been instilled in him since birth.
Picture Number 3. Seeing the ox.
“The song of a nightingale, listen! It’s perching on a branch. Warm sunrays and a soothing breeze. Green willows on the bank. Ah, there! No way to overlook its majestic horns and stately head. A challenge for a painter.”
The herder finds the course of action by what he begins to perceive with his senses. Thus he sees into the origin of all things, and his perceptions are harmonious with all of existence. The course is not only present in some of his activities, it is an integral part of all activities. It’s like oxygen in the air though it isn’t distinguishable as something separate or individual. When his eye is properly directed the herder realizes the Way is nothing other than himself.
Picture Number 4. Catching the ox.
“Everything and all he gives, and finally is able to catch the ox. What strength of will, what power. All too tough to shed at once. At times it suddenly struts up, up to higher plains to hide in mist and clouds, and rest in deep ravines.”
The herder has been wandering, lost in the back country, but finally he takes hold of the animal. Still, because the herder feels pressures from the outside world the ox is hard to control. Its wild nature causes it to balk at being subdued. It wants to return to the fields of fresh grasses.
Picture Number 5. Taming the Ox.
“Not letting go of tether and whip, not even for a moment, he’s careful to not lose his way in the dirt and dust of the world. Well tended and domesticated, the ox grows pure and gentle. Without a chain and bridle it trails its master just so.”
When a human thought occurs, another thought follows, and then another, forming a jumbled sequence of ideas, notions, and opinions. Through enlightenment all judgments and conclusions are clear and become truth. Only when there is confusion is there distortion. We are troubled and encumbered not so much by an objective world as by a self-deceiving mind. The oxherd—who is us—must not let go of the ox’s nose-rope but hold it tightly, not allowing any wavering or irresolution.
Picture Number 6. Coming home on the ox's back.
“Riding high on the ox, he leisurely turns toward home. The singsong of his flute vanishing in the evening glow. Each beat, each note full of infinite meaning. When one is in tune with the other, no need for chat and blabber.”
The contest is over. Having caught the ox the herder has lost all thoughts of gain and loss. He has no delusions. He hums a tune and sings simple songs. Seated on the animal his eyes are not fixed on the earth. He doesn’t turn his head, and will not be distracted.
Picture Number 7. The ox forgotten, leaving the herder alone.
“Once astride his ox the herder reaches the mountains and hills of home. No more ox! The herder is serene. Yet, though the sun stands high above, he is still dreaming the dream while whip and tether lie idle in that thatch-roofed hut of his.”
The ox is symbolic. When you realize you don’t need a trap to catch a rabbit or a net to catch a fish but the rabbit or the fish itself, you are awakened. This awakening has always existed. It is you, and you are it.
Picture Number 8. Ox and herder gone.
“Whip, tether, person, ox: All is empty! Blue sky, all and all around: What is there to convey? How to keep a flake of snow atop a red-hot oven? Get there and you do accord with the founders of our school.”
No longer is there any confusion, only peace and calm. There is not even any notion of holiness. The herder does not speculate on the whereabouts of the Buddha. There is no dualism. There is no “I.”
This illustration is usually regarded as the most significant of the entire series, and some Zen scholars think it should be the final picture. Recall what I said earlier about Kaku-an disagreeing with that notion.
The circle is a popular and powerful symbol in Zen. It signifies no beginning, no ending. When drawn with a brush the circle is the calligraphy for “heart.”
As an interesting aside, the German theologian Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who was considered to be the founder of mysticism in Germany, said “A man shall become truly poor and as free from his creature-will as he was when he was born. . . . He alone has true spiritual poverty who wills nothing, knows nothing, desires nothing.” (From Eckhart as quoted by Inge in Light, Life, and Love.)
Picture Number 9. Returning to the source.
“Returning to the root and source is such a waste of effort. Much better to turn blind and deaf right at this very moment. Inside his hut he does not see any object, nothing outside. Rivers flow onward by themselves, and blossoms turn crimson like that.”
From the beginning a person has never been truly lost. A person watches the growth of nature while neither agreeing nor disagreeing with it. A person simply doesn’t identify with the changes that go on all around, and at the same time he or she doesn’t feel self-important and superior. Lakes are blue, mountains are gray. Sitting alone, the herder observes changes.
Picture Number 10. Entering the marketplace.
“Bare-chested and with naked feet he bursts into the market, full of dirt and ashes. His face is one big, wide grin. No need for magic potions from adepts and immortals. He simply lets a withered tree erupt in blazing bloom.”
The herder’s hut is closed, and even the most insightful persons don’t know him. No one is able to see his inner being because he goes his own way without following anyone else. He re-enters the world to join the common people, and they understand there is something different, something special about him.
In the words of Urs App, “Your true self—what you really are without realizing it—is nothing other than that ox and that flower, or your neighbor. Thus the true person isn’t aloof from the world but is right here in the bustle of the marketplace.”
Commentary by Aldous Huxley
In: The Perennial Philosophy, a 1945 book by Aldous Huxley, published by Harper & Row in the US.
It was published in the UK in 1946 by Chatto & Windus.
The pattern of Jesus' life is essentially similar to that of the ideal sage, whose career is traced in the 'Oxherding Pictures,' so popular among Zen Buddhists. The wild ox, symbolising the unregenerate self, is caught, made to change its direction, then tamed and gradually transformed from black to white. Regeneration goes so far that for a time the ox is completely lost, so that nothing remains to be pictured but the full-orbed moon, symbolising Mind, Suchness, the Ground. But this is not the final stage. In the end, the herdsman comes back to the world of men, riding on the back of his ox. Because he now loves, loves to the extent of being identified with the divine object of his love, he can do what he likes; for what he likes is what the Nature of Things likes. He is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers; he and they are all converted into Buddhas. For him, there is complete reconciliation to the evanescent and, through that reconciliation, revelation of the eternal. But for nice ordinary unregenerate people the only reconciliation to the evanescent is that of indulged passions, of distractions submitted to and enjoyed. To tell such persons that evanescence and eternity are the same, and not immediately to qualify the statement, is positively fatal--for, in practice, they are not the same except to the saint; and there is no record that anybody ever came to sanctity who did not, at the outset of his or her career, behave as if evanescence and eternity, nature and grace, were profoundly different and in many respects incompatible. As always, the path of spirituality is a knife-edge between abysses. On one side is the danger of mere rejection and escape, on the other the danger of mere appearance and the enjoyment of things which should only be used as instruments or symbols. The versified caption which accompanies the last of the 'Oxherding Pictures' runs as follows:
Even beyond the
ultimate limits there extends a passage-way,
By which he comes back to the six realms of existence.
Every worldly affair is now a Buddhist work,
And wherever he goes he finds his home air.
Like a gem he stands out even in the mud,
Like pure gold he shines even in the furnace.
Along the endless road (of birth and death) he walks sufficient unto himself.
In all circumstances he moves tranquil and unattached.
by Jill N. Henry
In ancient China and Japan, centuries ago, a series of pictures began to appear. They were engraved in wood, painted on plates, and generally distributed throughout the culture. These pictures, known as the “ox-taming’ series of the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen, formed a visual story of the stages of achieving the Buddhist enlightened mind. We will use them to explain our path through the Chakras.
Picture 1 – Seeking the Ox. This picture generally shows an Ox alone, or a person alone. Also called “Struggling to Emerge from Confusion”, this is the beginning stage of awareness. The Ox was the first animal to be tamed by man and represents all the unseen energies of the chakras. We must first become aware that there is something more to life than what is experienced by the five senses. The majority of people are not aware, and therefore do not even seek beyond what is apparent. The first step is knowing that there is something to seek.
In Picture 2 – Finding the Tracts – the ox is seen with head looking up. This represents the first attempt to discover the nature of the ox. At this stage, we begin to read about energy, about spirit, about the chakras. Though this information is intellectual only, it is enough to encourage us to continue the exploration.
Picture 3 – First Glimpse of the Ox, represents our beginning abilities to sense and feel the energy of the chakras. The first experience of colors, feelings, beliefs which lie hidden within us. We begin to experience an inner source of energy and power and begin to understand how this inner work can help us in our lives.
The next three pictures, Catching the Ox, Taming the Ox, and Riding the Ox Home, depict our intense inner work in chakra development. It is here that we identify our strengths and weaknesses in the first 4 chakras. We work on our beliefs about survival in the root chakra. We explore our relationships and sensuality in the navel chakra. Issues of personal power are dealt with in the solar plexus. Blocks to love and healing are released in the heart chakra. This is intense work and results in establishing some level of control over our own energies. To “ride the ox” is to have tamed it! The ox, or our own inner nature, now is under our own command. We are now able to extend our abilities in the world because we have control of the ox and can use these inner energies to manifest our desires.
Picture 7 - Ox Forgotten, Self Alone, is the work of the fifth or throat chakra. This is the establishment of inner direction and its natural flow of outward expression. Going inward, beyond the senses. Experiencing directly the energy before it becomes encapsulated in thought and feeling. And letting that energy flow outward without effort.
Picture 8 – Ox and Self Forgotten, is the meditation associated with the brow chakra. This is the direct experience of the inner wisdom of knowing. Knowing for its own sake, without external influences.
Picture 9 – Return to the Source, is the oneness experience of the crown chakra. The merging with All That Is. The return to Home.
The Ox-herding pictures would not be complete without picture 10 – Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands. The reason we explore the chakras, the reason we take the time and effort to develop them at all, is in order to return to the world and be of service. The more we can understand and empower our natural energies, the more value we can be to our family, our friends, our community and our world.
十牛圖 Shiniu tu
The Ten Ox-herding Pictures
Verse by 廓庵師遠 Kuoan Shiyuan, 12th century
Commentary by Ming Qi
The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures with Ming Qi´s Comments (Lily-Marie Johnson, 1931-)
In the 18th (Buddhist) century (12th by western calendars), a Chinese Ch'an (Zen) master (Japanese: Kukuan) painted ten pictures illustrating the search for an ox, an allegory for the search of our true nature. These pictures and the comments on them, in prose and rhyme, have been repeatedly redone through the centuries; and, with "koans" widely employed, particularly by the Lin-chi (Rinzai) school (my own lineage).
Enlightenment, the realization of one's true nature in an instant (satori) is the objective of Buddhist practice. Since the victory of Hui Neng's southern school, all Chinese schools of Ch'an have accepted the doctrine of instantaneous enlightenment. Although satori is instantaneous, the practice which precipitates it may be experienced and understood as occurring in a series of stages.
The ox-herding pictures are an attempt to aid the progress toward enlightenment by exemplifying certain of these "steps". Through their comments succeeding generations of Ch'an masters have assisted their disciples and demonstrated their understanding. It is with this intention that I have added my own.
Although these pictures are often explained as illustrating the search for one's true nature, or the accomplishment of a perfect mastery of self, this is far from correct because neither theory can explain all ten pictures. Although one may think in terms of searching for his true nature, it would be like searching for your hat on your head, or your glasses on your nose, or to mount a donkey to go to search for the donkey. Although it is clear that the ox is the symbol of our true Buddha-nature; the boy, ourselves in search of that nature; and the rope and the whip the means we (by error) believe necessary because we (incorrectly) believe we are separated from it. We fail to realize that the ox has never been lost!
There are at least five other famous illustrations of this allegory; each with their commentaries in rhyme and prose, in the Zen traditions (Lin-chi and
Cao Dong— Japanese: Rinzai and Soto). They also have their equivalent in the elephant training pictures of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the horse training pictures of Taoism. Nevertheless, this metaphor was already particularly well developed in these two Zen schools from the seventh century. The pictures themselves and their commentaries, dividing the training into phases were added three or four centuries later.The essential point is that one doesn't obtain enlightenment by pursuing it elsewhere, but by discovering it within oneself. Whether this discovery takes place gradually or suddenly was illustrated by the famous poems of Shen Xiu (gradualist) and Hai Neng (sudden), the Sangha finally favoring the latter.
All of the illustrations and explanations of these pictures point to the same basic truth. Therefore to understand one series is to understand them all. So I will leave the others to the endless and petty debates of scholars who mistake the pointing finger for the moon it is indicating. (To mistake the words of the teaching for that which is being taught.)
Despite the long tradition of use in the two principal schools of Ch'an, it may be argued that the ox-herding pictures are inappropriate for other than novices. The commentators have pointed out, from the first, the errors they may inspire. However, keeping these pitfalls in mind, even advanced practitioners may discover certain insights in contemplating them. My commentaries are intended for both categories of students.
Finally, one may legitimately doubt whether anything new may be added to the volumes of commentaries already consecrated to these pictures. My justification is that in the middle of the 26th century of the Buddhist Epoque, the world has changed so much and so rapidly that a new look at this ancient aid on the Tao (way) to enlightenment is indicated. It is for the reader to judge if I am right.
My commentaries proceed in two phases, first a critic of previous comments (those appearing in the below cited book) and secondly my own view is added in conclusion.
Here are my commentaries.
The Search for the Bull
Everyone is searching for a cure for
their insatisfaction. We wrongly suppose the answer is obscured and that
obstructions must be overcome on a long and exhausting trip which takes us far
into unchartered lands. Like a mirage our goal recedes as we advance. In the
frenzy of our desparate quest we ignore our immediate surroundings, mesmerized
by the distant majestic peaks of our imagined destination. The bull is not
lost, your search is like that for your glasses on your own nose or your hat on
your head. Our ox-herder has got on the ox to go looking for the ox. There is
no separation from our true nature, nor is a confusion of our senses possible.
We see what we see, hear what we hear and think what we think. Our tracks are
always there, under our feet, and we are always at home. As the old lady said
when directing the monk to Zhao Zhou's (Joshu's) Bai-lin temple: we should
always "go straight ahead." Make no mistake that advice can also mean
to go left or right, or even to turn back. Only by rejecting all dualisms can
we see things for what they are.
The locust and all the 10,000 phenomena are manifestations of our true nature, to look elsewhere is to abandon it, to err endlessly in a land where no place is home; in a labyrinth of dualities.
Discovering the Footprints
Inevitably we discover the traces since everything, everywhere is evidence. Nothing, even ourselves, can be external to the ONE (thus: "one finger zen"). Far from being simply evidence; everything, everywhere is itself that for which we search. Things are not evidence of reality, but are reality itself. Apart from immediately reality there are only illusions generated by our mental constructions. Understand this and you understand the teaching. The path is always just in front of you. You need not discriminate to discern it. Once you commence to divide true from untrue, your task is unending. Stop! don't speak, even to think (even about thinking) is to lose yourself in a sea of illusions.
Perceiving the Bull
You've seen the traces and now the ox, important progress indeed to pass from signs to direct perception! To go from the source of illusions to reality itself. Now you're directing your attention to immediate reality and therefore no illusion can hide it. Like Magritte's "This is not a pipe"; what an artist can draw is not a bull. While you drink water, you don't ask if it's warm or cold. The six senses (the sixth is the perception of your thoughts) "merge" when you use them together to perceive directly, to become one with "the 10,000 things" (in Chinese culture, 10,000 = infinity!). In so doing you cross the threshold from duality into the unity of all things. That "entrance" is everywhere, always just in front of you. Each thing is unique and therefore incomparable. Each thing is exactly right to be what it, and only what it can be. As the butcher told the monk: "Each of our pieces (of meat) is the best." When you perceive your true nature, you will recognize it as a childhood friend.
Catching the Bull
The film Forbidden Planet took us to
an (almost) uninhabited world where gigantic automated power plants produce
endless power without apparent use. A lone stranded scientist struggled to
discover the use for this enormous energy. When a search party arrives to
"rescue" him against his will, fireballs of energy block them at
every turn. The explanation was that the energy was at disposal of the
scientist's unconscious desires.
Here we see that the ox's "great will and power" are inexhaustible and that he is capable of a "terrific struggle." When we discover that we are the only source of his energy the "struggle" will be over. Although he is always with you, you can't turn around fast enough to see him. Now you've caught him, he can no longer hide. Still, he seems insubordinate, used to his old ways, searching for new satisfactions while remaining always unsatisfied. You think you can whip him into obedience, yet another illusion!
Taming the Bull
Separating yourself from your true
nature, you imagine you must force the ox to obey. This error will be
self-proving until you understand that your Buddha-nature is naturally
satisfied, naturally gentle. The whip and rope were themselves their only justification.
No effort is required, everything, including all the phenomena which are you,
are simply what they are. Understanding that your thoughts are phenomena like
all others, they will at last appear as they are, all true to themselves;
beyond the delusions of true and false. Then you will understand that immediate
reality is the gateway to enlightenment and the Lord Buddha's touching the
ground is opening the "gate", which only illusion sees.
Here as in all the first six of these pictures there's the fundamental defect of the duality of two selves: the self of everyday life and the self of our Buddha-nature. Not only is this, like all dualities, false; but the illusion of even one self is itself false as a violation of the doctrine of the non-existence of self. Perhaps the answer is that we must crawl before we can walk. However crawling is not a means of learning to walk, which requires the rejection of crawling.
Riding the Bull Home
To mount the ox is to become one with
your true nature; once united with it you're already home. Flute and hands beat
in harmony with the 10,000 things. All things, directly perceived, form the
path (Tao) of the enlighten one. To realize your place in this flow of events
there is neither joy nor sadness, rather infinite satisfaction. Once achieved
this realization of the perfect harmony of all things will never be voluntarily
Here again one must note that although once acquired the capacity to enter nirvana (that is of course what we are referring to here) is never renounced; it is not the case that a Buddha remains permanently in that state. On the contrary, it is characteristic of one possessing the capacity to enter nirvana at will that he or she will reenter samsara for the sake of those that may be aided thereby
The Bull Transcended
This picture, its verse and commentary express a single point: that all has been one since the beginning. The "ox" was only a means to realizing this fact. Once realized, the world of samsara is experienced as it really is: nirvana. Abandoning your attempt to force phenomena to conform to concepts ends the sense of struggle and turmoil inspired by the illusions of samsara. Then the perfect unity of all things, including yourself, appears effortlessly. The disappearance of the obscuring cloud, doesn't create the moon, but only reveals it. As the Lord Buddha correctly taught us: He created nothing; rather He simply discovered the truth about how the world works.
Both Bull and Self Transcended
Here, finally, we discover the
consequences of this truth: that nothing is independent or permanent. All
things are an integral part of the entire cosmos (*). All messages (concepts,
dogmas) are swept away by passing time, as footprints in the sand on the
sea-shore. To understand this is to accomplish the goal of abolishing all
goals. For a Buddha there is no enlightenment, no Buddhahood; and samsara and
nirvana are one. For Him praise and blame are the same.
Once a dying Master's selected successor, attending at his bedside, slid a vial of medicine toward him. The Master criticized him violently because the gesture was useless. The disciple, without changing expression simply slid the vial back again. The Master smiled and said: "Now that I know I have a worthy successor I can die satisfied
(*) See Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, Anchor Doubleday 1985/7, pages 241 and following.
Reaching the Source
Immediate reality is the source of everything. It is the beginning and the end of every quest. What happens in between is without consequence. The sooner you "give up" the better. The harder you race toward the imaginary goal the farther you get from it. Although trying hard is better than being too lazy to attempt, or continue; it is better to awake to the treasure-house within yourself. Then nothing need be sought, nothing need be gained. When you see the statues of the Lord Buddha touching the earth, understand that He is teaching you that dwelling in immediate reality is release from illusion and freedom from illusion is enlightenment.
In the World
When the traveller on the Tao reaches his/her goal the 10,000 things are again just as they are, just as they were before entering the gateless gate. Nevertheless he/she is infinitely richer for the experience. Now his/her heart flows with the 10,000 things, ignoring the intoxication of senses and experiencing being MU directly. Everything is MU, MU is "alive", therefore everything is "alive" (or, if you prefer: interdependent and in constant evolution). Everyone is an integral part of the entire cosmos. Impossible (and therefore the attempt is selfdefeating) to hold oneself apart from this universal process. Time and space collapse and a dead tree is also a sapling in bloom ("the beauty is invisible"). No longer obliged to follow the ideas (rules) of others, you become autonome, complete. Fully satisfied with oneself, and therefore with everyone and everything (Lord Buddha — upon His illumination: "My work in this life is finished"), there's no need to prolong (or shorten) one's life.
According to the teachings of Zen Buddhism, one’s self-partiality is at the root of all your illusions. There is not any illusion when you do not have this preference for yourself. In the introductory books on Zen, which usually contains ten or six drawings called “Oxherding Pictures”, the objective of the search is man's true self, which is represented by a bull or buffalo. This “Oxherding Pictures” have spiritual roots in the early Buddhist texts. They provide useful imagery of an illusion to be negated before a seeker of truth can experience enlightenment. The ox symbolizes the mind and the herder symbolizes the seeker. The protagonist of the Ten Oxherding Pictures, a boy herdsman, stands for none other than you, dear reader. It is the very "I" that reads these lines through a pair of eyes, the subject of your life, the protagonist of that unique story that is yours. It is what thinks your thoughts, makes your plans, has your desires, and signs your checks: it is what was born of your parents and will die on your deathbed. This "I" is also the starting point of the Zen Buddhist quest. When a Chinese man called Huike, according to a Zen story, met Bodhidharma, the following conversation ensued:
Huike: "Please, Master, bring peace to my heart-mind!"
Bodhidharma: "Show it to me, and I will pacify it!
Huike: "I have searched for it, but I could not find it."
Bodhidharma: "If you could search for it, how could it be your very own heart-mind?"
In Zen Buddhism, the injunction "show me yourself" has a particular ring, as the root-source of man's basic dissatisfaction and the engine of his striving is none other than this "I". Here below we will further describe the “Oxherding Pictures” which depicts a story of taming of unruly, wild bull, and also explain its symbolic meaning.
1. Searching for the bull
In the pasture of this world,
I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers,
lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains.
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted. I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
In this stage, the herdsman searches all over, without a specific order, it represents that a man knowing nothing about his true nature, but somehow or other, he has already started his search. He wishes to find it, even though he does not know what truth is, nor is he sure he could recognize it when he finds it. In other words, the result of the stage is confusion and deillusionment. Humans are different from animals in that they can think and reflect. It is our thinking and reflecting that brings us to wonder or question about ourselves and life. Some people seek a reason for life, just as the herdsman seeks the ox. At first they seek outside of themselves, looking at philosophy, science, occult matters, etc. Perhaps wealth and personal possessions have been amassed to cover the aches and discomforts of the heart and mind, and now the person wearies of this, it no longer works. The inspiration for this first step, which is searching for the bull, is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain. You are looking for whatever it is that will make the situation right. You discover that ego attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory.
2. Discovering the footprints
Along the riverbank under the trees,
I discover footprints!
Even under the fregrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.
In this stage, the herdsman finds indications, clues in one or more spiritual traditions, he is attracted by books of wisdom, he assists to conferences on the subject, he meets masters and notices that there are others that have followed the same path, he is not the first person to have noticed that there is something subtle to attain. Generally, his path starts with yoga practice, meditation or other disciplines. By engaging these, he experiences the sensations that are related to spirit. In the first image, the farmer searches all over, without a specific order, whereas in the second image, his search is more focused and better oriented while he has found the path. The path here represents phenomena and the erratic nature of the mind. By understanding the origin you find the possibility of transcending this pain. This is the perception of the Four Noble Truths. You see that pain results from the conflicts created by ego and discover the footprints of the bull, which are the heavy marks of ego in all play of events. You are inspired by unmistakable and logical conclusions rather than by blind faith. This corresponds to the Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana paths.
3. Perceiving the bull
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild,
willows are green along the shore, here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?
This would be considered the first spiritual experience, the herdsman gets to see his true self and feel the physical and spiritual energy that awakens within him. His objective will be to elevate this energy towards his consciousness instead of repressing or eliminating the animal within. You are startled at perceiving the bull and then, because there is no longer any mystery, you wonder if it is really there; you perceive its insubstantial quality. When you begin to accept this perception of non-duality, you relax, because you no longer have to defend the existence of your ego. Then you can afford to be open and generous. You begin to see another way of dealing with your projections and that is joy in itself, the first spiritual level of the attainment of the Bodhisattva. In this stage, transcendence of the subject and the object is known by direct experience. Past thought patterns become painfully apparent.
4. Catching the bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
Here, the herdsman has caught the bull but it is still stubborn and does not follow him. He has finally caught it but it is obstinate and uncontrolled. Its energy and decision are relentless, at times it runs toward the hills, at other times it stays unmovable in deep impenetrable valleys. Seeing a glimpse of the bull, you find that generosity and discipline are not enough in dealing with your projections, because you have yet to completely transcend aggression. You have to acknowledge the precision of skilful means and the simplicity of seeing things as they are, as connected to fully developed compassion. The subjugation of aggression cannot be exercised in a dualistic framework, that is the complete commitment into the compassionate path of the Bodhisattva is required, which is the development of patience and energy. In this stage, the mind wanders and gets uptight when the seeker does not have expert control over everything. It represents our struggle with our basic nature, something that might be possible to last a whole lifetime. A person must think and analyze if he is advancing and attaining a clearer understanding or he is simply stuck and protecting himself behind certain doctrines or ideas related to spiritual practice.
5. Taming the bull
The whip and rope are necessary.
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
The herdsman is now directing the bull with the reins and controls it to the extent that the bull lets himself be guided. Little by little the man becomes the master. Once caught, the taming of the bull is achieved by the precision of meditative panoramic awareness and the sharp whip of transcendent knowledge. The Bodhisattva has accomplished the transcendent acts (paramitas) - not dwelling on anything. In this stage, it focuses on bringing together his consciousness with the animal nature, that is the basic nature. Consciousness thus goes beyond the ordinary thinking mind.
6. Riding the bull home
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.
The herdsman is riding the bull without reins, the bull knows where to go and that is where it goes without being directed. He is playing the flute placidly on the back of the bull. There is no longer any question of search. The bull (mind) finally obeys the master and becomes creative activity. This is the breakthrough to the state of enlightenment - the Vajra-like samadhi of the Eleventh Bhumi. With the unfolding of the experience of Mahamudra, the luminosity and colour of the mandala become the music which leads the bull home. In this stage, the struggle is over. In the Hindu culture, Gods and Goddesses are represented riding on animals as their vehicle. The animal symbolizes the inferior nature that the man dominates and with which he has a good relationship. One must feed and take care of the biological part of our being, without abusing nor relaxing too much. This way the physical vital force becomes an ally.
7. The bull transcended
Astride the bull, I reach home. I am serene.?
The bull too can rest. The dawn has come.?
In blissful repose,
within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.
The herdsman is alone and happy, sitting by his house, the bull is no longer visible. The herdsman has become one with the Being. Instead of the former efforts, a state of peace and happiness reigns. Even that joy and colour becomes irrelevant. The Mahamudra mandala of symbols and energies dissolves into Maha Ati through the total absence of the idea of experience. There is no more bull. The crazy wisdom has become more and more apparent and you totally abandon the ambition to manipulate. In this stage, the subject and the object now become one, it represents that transcendence is a recurring or temporal experience of unity, beyond dualities. It is an exceptional state of conscience. When we live in a dual world, we always experience the opposites: inside and outside, happiness and sadness, success and failure, rich and poor and so on. Duality starts with birth and ends with death. Actually, we live not only in duality, but rather multiplicity. Whereas transcendence implies a unity experience, not duality, not multiplicity, that shows us our true nature. In other words, the seeker having learnt to let go of everything no longer has worldly attachments.
8. Both bull and self transcended
Whip, rope, person, and bull -- all merge in
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.
The herdsman cannot even say "I'm illuminated" or "I'm not illuminated", they do not exist for him, unity is all that exists. This is the absence of both striving and non-striving. It is the naked image of the primordial Buddha principle. This entrance into the Dharmakaya is the perfection of non-watching - there is no more criteria and the understanding of Maha Ati as the last stage is completely transcended. In this stage, it represents that all has fused itself into nothingness. We can only observe a circle, with nothing inside, which means all opposites have disappeared. The illusion of reality being separate from the mind is shattered, enlightenment as an unconditioned state of mind is experienced and the mind has escaped from the trap of opinions and views. Drawing a picture would be a contradiction of “no thing”.
9. Reaching the source
Too many steps have been taken returning to the
root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one's true abode, unconcerned with that without –
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
There is only nature in all its splendor, flowers, birds, the river, mountains, there is already such space and openness and the total absence of fear, and the play of the wisdoms is a natural process. The source of energy which need not be sought is there; it is that you are rich rather than being enriched by something else. Because there is basic warmth as well as basic space, the Buddha activity of compassion is alive and so all communication is creative. It is the source in the sense of being an inexhaustible treasury of Buddha activity. This is, then, the Sambhogakaya. In this stage, it shows what happens after the transcendental experience. Outside the illuminated man, nothing has changed, only the man himself has been transformed. He reenters life with different eyes, a new center with another focus guides him. Each time he so wishes he could go within himself and sees life through it. All is in peace. The search for enlightenment has come full circle. The world goes on regardless of what changes have occurred. It is the nature of all phenomena.
10. In the world
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the
people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
now, before me, the dead trees become alive.
In this stage, we can see a Buddha, after attaining the state of illumination, almost did not come out again and return to the world. His compassion for all beings finally took hold and the rest of his life he dedicated to intense social work that transformed culture and society in his time. In this drawing the illuminated man now directs himself to other beings to help them. The enlightened being might be anybody who has renounced the world to help others towards the path. Selfless service becomes the hallmark of wisdom. Nirmanakaya is the fully awakened state of being in the world. Its action is like the moon reflecting in a hundred bowls of water. The moon has no desire to reflect, but that is its nature. This state is dealing with the earth with ultimate simplicity, transcending following the example of anyone. It is the state of "total flop" or "old dog". You destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, you subdue whatever needs to subdue, and you care for whatever needs your care.
The “Oxherding Pictures” is a well-known Zen representation of training of the mind, so basic that it could be considered fundamental to all schools of Buddhism. It was drawn by some Zen masters of old, notably by Kaku-an and Jitoku of the twelfth century. It is a deeper way of looking at it is in terms of spiritual development from Shravakayana to Maha Ati. The bull represents the mind of human, and the herdsman who tames the bull is the yogi, that is the person engaged in meditation. Here it is remarkable that in the “Oxherding Pictures”, the ox is black in color at the beginning, but through the course of taming and training, it gradually becomes white, and until finally it becomes completely white in color. The underlying idea is that the mind, which is naturally pure, is polluted by extraneous impurities and that is could and should be cleansed through discipline and meditation. There are in the Anguttara-nikaya two very important and essential suttas which serve as an index to the concept of the black ox gradually becoming white oxen. One sutta says: “Bhikkhus, this mind is luminous and it is defiled by adventitious defilements.” The other one says: “Bhikkhus, this mind is luminous, and it is freed from adventitious defilements.” We would find that the model of the “Oxherding Pictures” has its roots in the Pali commentaries where it says: “just as a man would tie to a post a calf that should be tamed. Even so here should one tie one’s own mind tight to the object of mindfulness”. In the “Oxherding Pictures”, the evolutionary process of taming the bull is very close to the Vajrayana view of the transmutation of energy. Particularly returning to the world as the expression of the compassion of the Nirmanakaya shows that the final realization of Zen automatically leads to the wisdom of Maha Ati. By learning the idea teaching in the “Oxherding Pictures”, we could understand more about ourselves, our life and our world being. Sometimes we would suffer from the unpleasant lives that brings from our polluted minds and ignorance, and sometimes we may have many questions and troubles in our minds, or even we lose our minds sometimes. Once we can think and analyze the things with a clear mind, anxiousness and defilements would then go away from our minds and we would not longer suffer. Since then, we would be able to see things as they really are with our experienced mind, and we would reach enlightenment. While all struggling is over and enlightenment is attained, we could return to the reality and give help to all sentient beings that have their minds lost and are suffering from their lives.
1. Rahula Walpola. (1978) Zen and the taming of the
bull : towards the definition of Buddhist thought. London : G. Fraser
2. Hayao Kawai. (1996) Buddhism and the art of psychotherapy. College Station : Texas A&M University Press.
The Search: Talks on the Ten Bulls of Zen
Talks given from 01/03/76 am to 10/03/76 am
English Discourse series, 143 pp.
Comics by Devakrishna (born Marco Giollo in Bellinzona, Ticino, Switzerland in 1953) for Osho commentary
The Warrior of Zen
and the Oxherd Story
by Sarah Berger
Warrior of Zen : the diamond-hard wisdom mind of Suzuki Shōsan
edited, translated, and with an introduction by Arthur Braverman; illustrations by Hiroko Braverman.
New York: Kodansha International, 1994. x, 133 p.
Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655) and the Ten Oxherding Pictures, pp. 83-97.
In the Warrior of Zen, edited, translated, and introduced by Hiroko Braverman, a seventeenth century samurai's ideologies about Zen Buddhism are analyzed and revealed. Suzuki Shosan is the samurai who's life and experiences are being shared with the reader. In the Warrior of Zen, Shosan's devotion, compassion, and respect for Buddhism is exposed. The book reviews how Shosan himself, evolved a highly original and innovative teaching style of Buddhism based on his own personal experiences as a warrior. Shosan originally was a samurai warrior who served under Shogun Tokugawa leyasu, but at age 41 he left that practice in order to become a Zen monk (137). His dedication to bringing true Buddhism to people from every segment of society intensified as he grew older. For Shosan, the virtue of Buddhism lie in its usefulness to his country and it's people (107).
Shosan only knowing a samurai's life, realized the Zen practice suited him perfectly because it demanded vitality, courage, and "death energy (the readiness to confront death at any moment (136))." All of the above characteristics mentioned are staples in a warriors life. As a result, he became an inspirational teacher for the Zen practice. For instance, Shosan tried to shed light on his students by informing them that true enlightenment comes during their daily tasks. For example, whether they are tilling fields, selling wares, or confronting an enemy in the heat of battle, it is times like those of direct contact with life that enlightenment will occur (137). Shosan sees true enlightenment in an untraditional way. That is to say, he does not believe enlightenment only occurs in matters of direct recluse or the renouncement of any daily activity in ones "normal" daily life (131). According to Braverman, Shosan's main focus of teaching was to remind his students that true Buddhism has nothing to do with gentle piety, righteousness, or theory, even though most monks were taught to practice in this manner. This is one of the most prominent reasons why Shosan was such a unique and distinct leader. He evolved a new teaching style all his own.
As stated above, Shosan's methods and teaching of Zen styles were quite original and different. As a result, Shosan taught and focused on many different aspects of the Zen practice. One key teaching manual that was used by Shosan were the Ten Oxherding Pictures. These pictures are a series of drawings accompanied by prose and verse that depict the stages of development in Zen Practice (83). Shosan used these pictures as an instructional guide for himself and for his students to follow. They are also considered expressions of the spirit of Zen training and they represent another human attempt to explain the unexplainable (83). That is to say, these ten pictures point to the ultimate meaning of man's existence on earth.
Once again, there are ten pictures in this series, all of which when combined make a visual Zen manual on how one begins the training of ones mind. These illustrations focus on the following: an ox, an ox herdsman, and the mind struggle that they go through together for true enlightenment. In these photographs the ox represents the "Mind." To clarify, the "Mind", is meant to represent a sense of the original mind or original nature (83). These pictures are designed in a clear way to show followers of Zen the different elements of the original "Mind" as well as, its unique levels of understanding. It is also said that, in these pictures, the ox herder represents you. That is to say, the ox herder is the person on the spiritual quest. According to Braverman, the ox herder symbolizes and acts out the part of a practitioner who is trying to grasp his original nature. The ox and the ox herder are two totally separate entities that are gradually emerging into one (83).
The reason why these drawings have such a rich significance for the Zen practice is because the Ten Oxherding Pictures created a teaching method never used before. That is to say, most monks of this time period taught only by their spoken words, phrases or actions. These drawings were the first attempt to create images you could visually see with your own human eye that symbolized those long phrases and words.
Shosan felt that the pictures were detrimental to his students understanding of the true Zen practice. He saw that the images were a playful and fun learning technique for his students. The pictures are designed in a way to connect one with their childlike side. This promotes the ideology that anyone can learn and understand the Zen practice. According to Braverman, Shosan stated this about the pictures, "Remember for example, the feeling of our childhood, how you played in the rain and snow thinking, 'Ah, what fun (84).'" With this statement in mind, you can see that Shosan wanted and used the illustrations to go back to the basics of childhood. In other words, reinvent yourself and become more open about all of the different ways of learning and remember how it can be fun and exciting.
In order for you to get a better understanding of the photographs meanings, the following pictures are the reproductions of K'uo-an's original, Ten Oxherding Pictures:
Paintings traditionally attributed to 天章周文 Tenshō Shūbun (1414-1463),
ten circular paintings mounted as a handscroll, ink and light color on paper,
Muromachi period, late fifteenth century (32 × 181.5 cm), Shōkokuji temple, Kyoto
Paintings traditionally attributed to 天章周文 Tenshō Shūbun (1414-1463),
1. This illustration portrays the ox herder pushing aside weeds and roughage in order to search for the ox. It is the time for the beginning of the spiritual search, a time for a change of lifestyles and the eradication of bad habits (97). All in all, he fails to find the ox because of the separation from his own true nature.
2. The ox herder now finds evidence of the ox. A small stepping stone has now been achieved! According to Braverman, the ox herder still has difficulty being able to tell right from wrong and that is why it is said that he provisionally has just 'seen the traces (95).'
3. He sees the ox for the first time! This means that he sees inside himself and into his own nature (Ten Bulls 2). Looking for the way the ox went has now been discovered as the right path, even though, there is still so much more brush and roughage to remove (95).
4. He catches the ox. This symbol represents how difficult it was in order to catch the ox. The ox was stubborn and powerful, trying hard not to submit himself to the ox herder. This is an extremely exhausting level of religious practice (95).
5. He tames the ox. This process also requires extensive religious practice, however this step demonstrates how the Mind persevered and followed itself. This represents the taming of the unruly, stubborn and powerful mind. With care from the ox herder, the ox becomes gentle and pure (Ten Bulls 2). Through deep meditation practice and discipline the mind is cleansed and regains its original nature (2).
6. The ox herder mounts the ox and rides him home. This struggle has come to a close and the challenging experiences are never forgotten (10 Bulls 6). One is able to make free use of ones ripe mind (Braverman 95).
7. He now stands alone, the ox transcended. No longer will the ox herder ever pay attention to the ox. According to Braverman, the ox herder is now a man of no-Mind (95).
8. Both the ox and the herder are now transcended. This picture represents the moment of true awakening, the essence of enlightenment. The mind is clear now of limitation (10 Bulls 8).
9. By returning to this origin, the ox herder recognizes what he knew before. This gives him the power to formulate the clear truth and meaning of his entire journey (Ten Bulls 3).
10. The ox herder now returns to the world where he can live and teach others. He is now selfless with giving hands. According to Braverman, at this level delusion and enlightenment, the ignorant and the saintly, are all the same. Whatever he does nothing obstructs him. Evil becomes good (97).
The above pictures are representations of how and what one should do in order to live a life focused on the virtue of Buddhism. Shosan was particularly fond of these pictures because he could easily identify the images with the Buddha's images (Nio, Fudo, Bishamon, ect...(83)).
According to Braverman, Shosan saw the first picture 'Searching for the Ox,' to be the symbol demonstrating how the student first starts to sharpen his desire as he seeks the truth. In the second 'Finding the Tracks', he clarifies that anyone can learn the sutras and become a respectable man but it takes a man of true vision to distinguish true enlightenment from false (96). In other words, when following the tracks the true man will know which one to follow and not overlook a detail or hidden trail.
In the third picture 'Seeing the Ox', it is through the sounds he hears, and the sights he sees that the student will realize the way to the Ox. According to Braverman, all things are endowed with original nature, but this original Mind does not obey yet (96). In the fourth picture 'Catching the Ox', the student binds the ox-mind with a rope to make it obey him (96). Put in another way, his students must understand that it is very hard to leave their present world of delusion and if he follows his original Mind the student will never escape from this evil. This is were discipline training, and endless practicing becomes important.
In the fifth picture 'Caring for the Ox' discipline of the Mind is truly tested. The ox Mind will scamper off with the arising of just on single thought (96). This is the time when a student must pull firmly on the rope, entering a state of meditation. If the student does not apply rigorous religious practice constantly, you can not call it enlightenment (96).
In the sixth picture 'Riding the Ox Home', the student becomes one with the ox-mind through all of the meditation and ritual practice. The student must then give himself up to the ox-mind so that no barriers remain (97). 'The Ox Forgotten, the Man Left Alone' is the seventh picture. This is the level when the student still existing, becomes a man of no-way. In the eighth picture 'Both Man and Ox, Out of Sight', shows a level where no trace of the student remains (97). In the ninth picture 'Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source', the student is still without individual self but he still can see images, however, they are only of scenery. This is because he is doing nothing. That is to say, when one is without activity the only thing that remains is scenery.
In the tenth picture "Entering the Marketplace with Giving Hands,' the student will be restored with activity. That is to say, he re-enters his marketplace as a selfless person giving his hands to those who need him.
Even though, this journey might look simple to you it is very hard and time consuming. According to Shosan, "You cannot complete the practice of these Ten Oxherding Pictures in one lifetime or two." Shosan loved to use these visual images to connect with his students on all different levels of powerful learning.
Shosan is looked upon as an icon figure for the Zen practice. As stated above, he had a very unique teaching style. The Ten Oxherding Pictures are only one method he used to touch his students and bring Zen Buddhism to new heights.
Commentary by Claus Furstner
The bull is always here I see, feel, hear and smell but give it no name.
Footprints in the snow teaching consequence and order.
3. SEEING IT
Once seen the bull it can be recognised anywhere.
4. CATCHING IT
To catch the bull is a fight against ignorance and prejudice.
5. TAMING IT
With the recognition of belonging bull and will become one.
6. MASTERING IT
Now I know the bull as well as my self this world is my playground.
7. OVERCOMING IT
The moon reflects the sun, stillness reflects thunder, Life reflects spirit.
8. OVERCOMING ALL
Bull and self are one. Dark and light are tools for living.
9. AT THE SOURCE
The course of nature is the path.
Never was I anyone but me, whatever I am, I give.
Drawings by Jim Crump
The Zen Oxherding Pictures: Overview
“The Ten Oxherding Pictures” is a set of ten calligraphic works that portray the different stages in the journey to the realization of the truth, or the realization of the true self. I will first give a general introduction, summarizing each of the ten so that we have a broad picture.
We look at the ten oxherding pictures as a mirror that can tell us where we are in our practice. As we gaze at one or other of the ten pictures, there may come a sense of recognition- “That's it! That's me!” And with this, we are enabled to go on deeper and therefore to understand that next step we need to take, precisely based on our realization of where we are.
One other preliminary point in looking at these ten oxherding pictures is to note that they are not to be taken necessarily as involving a linear and chronological progression, that is, in the sense that the earlier stages are somehow less important than or are only stepping stones to the latter ones. We look at each of them as offering an invitation to enter into a full circle in which our entire being is contained and immersed in right from the start. So looking at these pictures may help us to see where we are in the cosmic circle that includes the entire universe. But this should not lead us to think, “Ah, I'm better than so-and-so because I am in number six and she is just in number three!” We are not meant to see it in a way that bolsters our deluded ego. Conversely, we need not demean ourselves and say, “Oh, I'm only in number two, and others may be in number six or number seven.” And so on. We are invited to see it as a full circle, or perhaps better as a spiral path, where we are in a journey together, and companions along the way, as we each move closer to and closer to the center where we are all connected, and have been so right from the start.
So with the above in mind I would like to first of all make a comment about the circle that is common to all of the ten oxherding pictures. The circle, as we may know from our understanding of the Zen tradition, is a representation of our true self. And it is written in Chinese or Japanese calligraphy in a way that is not exactly mathematically perfect, that is, in a way that every point is equidistant from the center. Instead, it is written given all the contours and angles marked by the human hand that sketched it. That “imperfect circle” with all its particular contours is the manifestation of “things just as they are,” and not the mathematically correct figure where every point in the circle is equidistant from the center, which is only an idealized concept. In short, the circle is drawn by a human hand, with a brush, with all of the contours and angles, in its imperfection, is “perfect” just as it is. One other feature of this circle that you will note if you really look at genuine Zen work closely is that it is not a closed circle. There is always a slight opening somewhere and that indicates that it is not something that is contained in itself, but opens out to unlimited space, to an infinite horizon.
We now look at the circle, keeping in mind the question “Who am I?” and “How can I discover that true self as represented by a circle in me in a way that I can see myself also as open in that dimension that is unlimited?” If you take the cue from the circle it also represents…nothing. Precisely because there is nothing in it, it is also perfect and complete, just as it is. So these two elements–fully empty and yet totally replete–just as it is—tell us about our true self.
The first picture in the classic versions depicts a little child who is supposed to be perplexed, or is searching for something. An inscription in Chinese characters goes, “In the beginning, suddenly emerged from confusion.” Another description found in other versions of this same first picture of a child just beginning to open its eyes and wonder about things is “the awakening of the fact.” Our version, sketched by an artist friend of the Maria Kannon Zen Center, is of a cowgirl, looking about and apparently searching for something. This is the first stage in the awakening process asking the question: “What's this all about?”
This is already a very significant step. In this first stage there is already a kind of awakening, namely, to a mind that asks fundamental questions. This is called “arrival at the Bodhi-mind,” or the mind of awakening. One is unsettled, asking “Who am I?” “How can I live my life in a way that is truly meaningful?” or “What is the meaning of all this?” Before arriving at this stage, perhaps we had been “asleep” many years, taking things in life for granted. We were once a child, then a teenager, and then we move on to adulthood, just following the “normal” stages and routines of human life. We may have gotten married and have started a family, and our children are on their way to leaving the nest, or have done so, so on. Then suddenly, at some point, the big questions start popping up in ways we cannot ignore. They may come when we are thirty or forty or fifty years of age. Or, it may come for some of us at an earlier age. The child in the picture represents that stage that now begins to awaken and ask, “What is this all about?” So the asking of the question leads us to seek ways that will enable us to pursue those questions more assiduously. This is the point where we seek a form of spiritual practice that will launch us in this direction.
The second stage is described as “finding the ox's traces.” Now one gets a sense of where one may go in pursuing that question and is inspired to go on further. The ox here is a symbol of the true self in the same way that the circle also is the true self. And so now one sees traces, like hoof prints, or perhaps some droppings, that makes one suspect that the ox must be somewhere nearby. It may be in the form of some renewed confidence, that “there must be something that makes this life worth living, so let me delve deeper and find out what it is.” It may be an insight of one's connectedness with all beings, conveyed to one in some unguarded moment. Spurred by these close brushes with the ox, one begins asking more questions and may begin reading some books, going to talks on spirituality, and so on. Or one may go to a religious center, or join a group to pursue some kind of practice that will deepen our sense of awareness and goad us on to go more deeply in our search.
The third stage is the sighting of the ox. Perhaps we may not yet see the whole ox, but we may have a glimpse its tail, or some part of the ox, that makes us sure that the ox is certainly there. But in a good many cases, this is just a slight glimpse, perhaps in a forest amid much foliage, or in the mist in semi-darkness, so we are not able to see it to its full extent. And yet, the glimpse we are given is enough to convey the fact that the ox is indeed right there! We may have seen it at close range, though it still seems somewhat elusive, as we still need to brush aside much that gets in the way of a full view. The glimpse just whets our appetite for more, and leads us to go further. In the Zen tradition, this third stage is known as the initial opening, or kensho experience. This is the initial experience of awakening to the true self. We may have only a brief glimpse-but at least we know that it is there. Now we know, not just from hearsay or from others who have seen it, or not just from deducing it from the tracks we may have seen or the ox manure we may have smelled along the way. But having directly seen it, we know that it is there and so we are given a new impetus to follow it more closely and become more intimate with it. And so for those of us who may have had a new experience like this, so suddenly, coming to us like this, we may be tempted to say, “Now I've got it! Now, I've had kensho and so I'm enlightened!”
Well, I've got news for you: you've only just begun what promises to be a lifetime journey. The sighting of the ox may still relapse into a memory or may become a beautiful concept that stays in our head, and in this case, it becomes just another ego trip, and more dangerous, as it is of a spiritual kind. (“Now that I've seen it.”), you may think you can claim yourself as an enlightened person and that will mitigate against the journey itself. So, that's why in our center we do not make such a big fuss about that initial experience. It is like an initial sighting that should simply draw us on to look further.
The fourth stage is now the catching of the ox. After having sighted it we go closer to it and are maybe even able to lasso it and as the picture in one version shows, the little child holds a rope around the ox's neck. Now, we have the ox closer at hand. But still the ox is unwieldy and it can still run away from us. It is still not under control. We have a rope that can enable us to keep it in tow. But still we have to continue to exert effort to enable it to stay there and not to run away from us.
The fifth stage, then, is one in which the ox has been tamed somewhat, and we are able to live in peace with it. It even follows us, and we are leading the ox along the path. We are now a little more accustomed to practice, and are now beginning to experience a sense of peace, a sense of joy. An inner satisfaction begins to make itself felt in our daily life, manifesting itself in our way of being more compassionate and being more thoughtful of others, and so on. And we begin to receive the fruits of the practice with less and less effort on our part.
The sixth stage is riding the ox home. We are now able to feel that we are on our way home. We can ride the ox and it doesn't try to jump and throw us away like a bucking bronco anymore. It is now fully one with us, and we are comfortable riding the ox. But still, there is more to come.
The seventh stage is about forgetting the ox, leaving the child to simply sit there and be relaxed. Now, even the ox is gone. At this stage one is no longer thinking about oneself, no longer having to pursue words like “dharma” or “enlightenment” “true self,” and so on. We are home with ourselves, at home in the universe, and we don't need to think about looking for something else. We are at peace where we are.
At the eighth stage, both the boy and the ox are forgotten. There is an empty circle represented here. There is no longer any ox, that is, no longer any sense of conceptualizing “truth” or “dharma” or “true self” or whatever. There is also no subject (I, me, mine) attempting to conceptualize or verbalize those terms. Both the subject and object are gone. In the seventh stage, the concept of truth, God, holiness, dharma and so on have disappeared, and you're simply living life in its pure simplicity. The eighth is a stage where even thoughts about yourself are no longer an issue. In some versions, of the oxherding pictures, this eighth stage is given as the last stage. The ten stage version, however, has an important message that we are also invited to consider, and experience for ourselves.
The ninth stage is described as a return to the source. Now, after having forgotten both my “self” and the “world” (that is, what is thought to be “outside of myself,” what emerges? There's a bamboo shoot. There is a plum blossom. There is a rock beside a gently flowing stream. Beyond that we don't see anything. This is just the realization of the way things are, as they are, in their naturalness. It is simply realizing that plum blossoms are there, and they are just what they are. All the things in life accepted, taken just for what they are.
The tenth stage is the fullness and completion of the full ten stages. And what does this depict? Here we see the child again, in playful mirth. In India the statues of the Buddha are usually emaciated, giving a sense of asceticism and world-renunciation, of transcendence. In China, however, the pictures of the Buddha are always associated with mirth and laughter and gaiety. So he is depicted as a very roly-poly person, always laughing and happy. And so the Chinese deity of happiness and mirth came to be identified with the figure of the Buddha. Our version depicts the cowgirl meeting a jolly person on the road, and they join in play. This tenth stage is experiencing that sense of joy and mirth and playfulness in one's daily life, no matter what. Another depiction of this stage is the return to the market place. We are back in the concrete struggles of our daily life. And yet, we are now able to live them, live right in the midst of them, with a sense of playfulness and inner freedom. We transcend life's struggles and challenges, not by escaping them, but by plunging ourselves right into them with a new sense of freedom and equanimity, with a sense of humor and a sense of acceptance. This is the stage wherein the powers of compassion gush forth in our lives and enable us to live no longer seeking anything for ourselves, but in service to others, toward the alleviation of suffering and the promotion of the well-being of all.
I have here tried to offer a summary of the ten oxherding pictures in a way that may help us realize that there are different stages along the way, but that we need not get stuck on any particular stage and becoming smug with ourselves. In seeing these steps one by one, we can truly say, “It is good to be, every step along the way.” We keep coming back full circle: it is always the child in us that is the one who draws us to all this. So what we are invited to do is to keep returning to that child in us, that is truly the one who can partake of the gifts of our being human. And as we can see from the title of the book written by the Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, that is the place that we are always invited to return, that is, come back full circle to where we have been all along. Suzuki Roshi also famously said to his students, “You are perfect just as you are.” And in the same breath, he would say, “There is still much room for improvement.” There is no sense putting on airs, thinking to ourselves, “Now I've advanced along the path.” Yet again, we need not downplay our practice, thinking, “Woe is me, I still have a long way to go.” We can realize both aspects, but yet we also realize that it is a circle that we are invited to simply plunge ourselves into and open our eyes to. As we do so, we know that at every step along the path, there is a fullness that we can experience. It is a fullness that doesn't let us stop there, but motivates us to take the next step, from fullness to fullness-through a never-ending process of emptying, and finding peace with every step.
Let us now look at each of these pictures in detail, as a way of appreciating the various features that emerge before us on in our path of awakening.
Oxherding Picture 1: Launching the Search
We have started a series addressing The Ten Oxherding Pictures which come from the Zen tradition as an expression of the path to self-realization. Each of the ten Oxherding pictures represents a stage along the path of awakening to true self.
The first picture in the series of ten is one where we see a little child beginning to search for something. So, it depicts the beginning of the search for the true self. There is a commentary entitled Riding the Ox Home , by Willard Johnson, which presents an interpretative title for this picture: “In the beginning, struggling to emerge from confusion.”
Before going into greater detail, let me just recall one important point in the general overview offered last time. What we have here to consider is not necessarily a linear progression whereby the first is the lowest and the tenth is the highest. Instead, we are invited to see it as a spiral movement moving ever closer to the center, where we are all connected.
* * *
Wherever we are, whatever stage we may be in in, is an integral part of the circle, and that constitutes a particular and distinctive manifestation of our true self. Each stage has its own place in the full circle that is our true self. In short, each step on the way in that spiral movement toward the center of the circle is itself full and complete. And yet, that fact, that each step already is full and complete does not mean we just stop there and not take the next step. Each step is taken in its own due time, leading naturally to the next. And still, with each step is a fullness to it, so that we are not left thinking, “well, I am not complete yet, because there's a next step to be taken.”
We are invited to experience each step as full and complete, just as it is. So when we are in a certain stage, we are invited to simply let ourselves be there, and let that stage take care of itself, and let that situation be truly a mark of that spiral journey where each step manifests a fullness and yet which leads to the next, and on and on toward the center.
To present this in terms that would also resonate with a theme in the Christian tradition, we say that the Reign of God is already there , right there in our midst, but also, at the same time, it is not yet . Now, from a conceptual point of view these two descriptions seem to cancel each other out: already there , and not yet . But seen from within, namely from an experiential standpoint of that reality that is called the Reign of God, the Infinite Realm within which our finite lives are always immersed, we are invited to realize that we are truly already there. “The Reign of God is in your midst,” Jesus proclaims to his followers. (Luke 17:21). The reverse can also be said: “You are in the midst of the Reign of God.” In fact, we have been there right from the start. There was never a time when we were not, if we can talk along those terms of linear time. One other way of putting this is thus: God's Infinity covers all time and all space, and therefore there is no place conceivable wherein God is not, just by the very nature of what God is by definition. And yet, in that very realization we experience also the invitation to continue to manifest it more fully, leading us more and more toward a greater fullness of its manifestation within the confines of our finite mode of being. There is this paradox of our human existence that we are incomplete and imperfect historical beings, moving toward completion and perfection in the fullness of time. God is there every step, and yet, the following step must be taken toward greater fullness. This reminds us of Gregory of Nyssa, who described the journey of the Christian toward the Infinite God as a path “from Glory to Glory.”
* * *
So the first step then, involves an awakening that urges us to begin this journey toward our true self. What goes before that? Chronologically speaking, we can say that we were in a stage of just being in slumber, that is, a stage before awakening.
Now, rather than going into too much conceptual detail, let me offer some illustrations of actual persons who have manifested this stage in their own path. The first person whom we are invited to look at is Shakyamuni himself. He was born in the 5th century or so, BCE. There are differences in scholars' opinions about the actual birth dates. But in any case, around the 5th century there was a man born of a royal family, whose clan owned a big domain in Northern India at that time, which now is under the territory of Nepal. This young man was named Siddhartha, which by the way means, one called to complete one's being. “Artha” is “goal” or “meaning” or “purpose” and several other related meanings, and “Siddha” means to complete. So Siddhartha is a name that already indicates the actual destiny that this person was called to realize in his earthly life.
He was born of this kingly clan, and was already destined at birth to inherit his father's realm. And so, given the appropriate time, he was destined to become a ruler of that domain. In a sense, he had nothing more to worry about in life: everything was taken care of. From his birth, all the stars were in his favor. He had everything anyone could have wished for in this earthly life. And yet, somehow, the puzzle is, why would such a person at 29, set all that aside, really literally divest himself of everything, and begin a journey seeking “something more.”
So, again we are told in many of those traditional accounts about his life that up to that stage his father had tried to ensure that he would not be exposed to any experience of want or of suffering. So he was brought up within the palace; given everything that he would want and so on. His father sought to assure him that he would be granted all the material and other needs that one could imagine. And yet, for some reason or other, he was not satisfied with that. Now, for some reason or other, is precisely our paradoxical way of saying it. And so, what we can learn in looking at Gautama's life, is that even given all the material satisfaction that a human being can ever want, that just is not enough. This reminds us of a song that was popular in the ‘60s or ‘70s, of Peggy Lee who sang “Is That All There Is?” Now, we may be at a point where everything goes our way, and yet some twinge of conscience makes us ask, “Is that all there is?”
* * *
Somehow the human spirit is called to something greater than whatever material satisfactions can ever fulfill. So this twinge from our inner voice trying to rouse us from slumber, seems to be what has propelled many of the great individuals who have contributed to human culture.
In the Christian tradition, so many of the saints began their journey with that big question, “is that all there is?” They began a quest for “something more.” In the Jesuit tradition, its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was already in his early thirties when he began his search. Up to that time he had been spending all his time and energy trying to gain honors and prestige at the court of Spain. He was just engaged with all his energy upon winning the attention of royal personages, especially the noble ladies, so that he would win their favors and therefore rise in the ranks. At one point, he was wounded in a battle, and that left him hospitalized for about 6 months. But during those 6 months of recuperation, he was able to take stock of his life, and he felt a big twinge of emptiness and a longing grew in him which propelled him to understand a sense of a gap in his existence. He also noticed the sense of fullness he would experience whenever he would read lives of saints.
Here were individuals who lived not so much to fulfill the material wants, or drives for power and money and self glory and so on, but lived fully dedicated in the service of God and of others. So somehow he felt that, looking at his future, he too was called to a search on the spiritual level. This gave him a very, very deep and inexorable sense of peace and fulfillment that enabled him to see through all his worldly and vain pursuits that had occupied him before, and he simply realized that that was no longer the way he wanted to live the rest of his life. We will not into the details here, but to make a long story short, from that time on he undertook a spiritual search that eventually led him to become the founder of a religious order of men fully dedicated in service to others for the glory of God. He compiled a notebook of his own experiences which he used to guide others in spiritual practice, also as a way of training others as guides in the inner journey, which came to be known as The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola , of which I will say more at the appropriate occasion.
Let us go back to the life of Gautama. He had all the material things that anyone could ever imagine that a human would ever want: all the material wealth that he needed to maintain his physical life; all the emotional support from a family; he had a child at that age of 29 when he began his search. He also had the realization that he could have a lot of worldly benefits—all the things that human beings look for: power, authority, wealth, prestige and so on. And yet, the question for him was, is this all that I am called to live for? And so, again, to make a long story short, it is said that he saw his fellow human beings in different states of suffering. He saw human beings in states of sickness, states of growing old and therefore losing their capacities to function as a healthy human being, and he also saw death in the face and realized this is also something that will happen to me.
Faced with these realities, the big question came: what is this life all about? And how can I really discover that true peace that will enable me to live content with myself and at peace with the world? So that was the beginning of his search. And as I have already noted, he left everything: his social position, all his material wealth, and so on, to devote himself fully to his search for answers to the big questions. His search took him six years, until the noted experience of Great Awakening.
* * *
We will talk about the experience of awakening from different angles in our continuing teishos dealing with the Ten Oxherding Pictures. At this point, what I would like to invite everyone, is to ask yourselves: What were the circumstances that precipitated the search in my case? Where, in my own life did I begin this search? Maybe if we can come back to that original point or that point in our own historical journey where the questioning began, perhaps we can again recover some of that zeal, some of that enthusiasm, some of that freshness that was ours when we began the search. This is so, especially along the way, if we are in this search for some time now and we're beginning to get bogged down in some kind of routine. It is refreshing to come back to that point where we ask ourselves: “Is that all there is?” What is there in life that is calling me to something greater? There is a well known book by a Zen Master who came to the United States, Shunryu Suzuki, entitled, “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.” This is an invitation to always come back to that initial question: what is this all about? This is beginner's mind.
Another person who is of reference to us in understanding this first picture of the Ten Oxherding Pictures is the Second Patriarch in China, Hui-k'o, pronounced Eka in Japanese. “Wisdom Fruit” is the literal meaning of his name. The Second Patriarch went to visit Bodhidharma, the monk who was reputed to be a sage from the Western Regions. There was this person from the Western parts (India), a foreigner, a stranger in China. He had settled in some place near a forest and he had been sitting there and had been living his life as a hermit; just living and spending most of his time sitting, meditating, facing the wall of his cave.
His reputation grew around the neighboring villages, and so this young man–young, maybe in his early forties at that time–went to this sage and asked him. “Please tell me, what can I do with my life? My mind is not at ease; I am anxious about my life. My mind is not at rest, please set it at rest.” So there is something that made him very anxious or that somehow made him look for something more than what he was already doing at that time. It was a turning point in his life.
And so, Bodhidharma, as the story goes, asked him, “If your mind is not at rest, bring that mind to me and I'll set it at rest.” And that was Bodhidharma's way of inviting him to take hold of that mind that was causing that anxiety or that was in that state of anxiety, by following the way that we are now taught to sit in the Zen tradition: to sit still in a straight posture, breath in and breath out in a regular and rhythmical way, both deeply and naturally, and let our minds simply be at rest. Or let our mind be there so that we can present it to Bodhidharma. And so, that's what the Second Patriarch tried to do. The punch line of the koan goes: “I have tried all my best and I have looked for that mind and I have realized that it is unreachable.”
* * *
And so, the answer of Bodhidharma as the koan goes is, “There, I have given rest to your mind.” This interchange is an invitation to those who are practicing to actually see what was the experience of Eka or Hui-K'o, the Second Patriarch,when he was finally able to realize “the unreachable.” That's the invitation for us. “I have realized that it is unreachable.”
That is not a statement of despair or giving up the search, but precisely a realization of something that points beyond oneself. To point out, or rather exclaim from the bottom of one's being that “it is unreachable” is to simply admit that, what I'm looking for is not within the realm of the finite. That which we grasp not within the material domain but precisely something that goes way beyond that. It is that which we can call unreachable. Hui K'o states: “Now I have realized that; now I am at peace.” That is the implication of Hui-K'o's answer–the experiential dimension of his discovery. It is not just a denial of the need to go on further, saying, “it's unreachable so I won't go on from here.” But it is precisely a statement that its unreachability is what I have realized, and so that gives me peace.
This again brings us back to the first picture: what is that which we are looking for in life? We are invited to look at that particular point, and as I asked each of you who come to dokusan for the first time (or, for some individuals maybe I need to keep asking it), what is it that you seek in this practice? And that is a question that invites each one to come back to that point that leads us to seek the path that will open our eyes to who we are.
So this is the invitation of the first picture: to again search our minds and look for that precise point, so that we can appreciate what propels us along the path. What is it that I am seeking? Is it inner peace? Is it the solution to the question of life and death? These will be cast in different ways depending on our own personalities, or depending on our own way of seeing ourselves in the spectrum of different psychological characteristics and so on.
Well, it can be phrased in many ways, but the main thing that we can say to describe it, is that it is something that invites us to go beyond where we are right now. It is something that arouses us from our slumber, always inviting us to reach for the unreachable. And reach for an unreachable is not as this song, “Impossible Dream” says, an impossible dream. But it is precisely an invitation to take the next step from there.
* * *
So I'd like to just round off by saying that this first picture is the picture that describes the beginning of our search. It is a renewed invitation for all of us who are here to take the next step. And what is the next step? Simply to be here, in this present moment. We are invited to take Bodhidharma's advice to the Second Patriarch: “Bring me that mind that is anxious and not at rest, and I will set it at rest for you.” So let us continue letting ourselves be propelled by that anxious mind that wants to seek peace. And this will enable us to take the next step, that we may realize the unrealizable; that we may reach the unreachable.
In Spanish there is a word to describe the starting-point of the search: the word, “inquietud.” It is not what we would translate in English as “inquietude.” But in Spanish, “inquietud” refers to “something in me that leads me to go on further.” It is not a negative term by any means. If there is an “inquietud” in me, there is something in me that is being aroused from its slumber, and leads me to go on. So let us take that as an invitation. Whatever stage we are, we are invited to just listen to that “inquietud,” that dynamic power which invites us to take the next step. A recollection of the beginning of our path draws us out of our slumber and stupor; giving us a new sense of freshness along the way.
Oxherding Picture 2: Traces of the Ox
I present these pointers on the second of the ten oxherding pictures nurturing a hunch, that in fact many of you here who have been in zen practice for some time are already familiar with it by now. Having sat in zen meditation on a regular basis a few months, or a few years for some of you, you may already be at a place where you have seen signs or traces of the ox. Here I offer some perspectives that might clarify some things that are already happening in you.
Some of you may also be thinking that you've gone beyond this stage of the path. “I'm already at a more advanced stage with the ox,” you may be saying to yourself. But I'd like to come back to a prefatory remark that I had made at an earlier talk on these ten oxherding pictures. It is not to be taken strictly as a linear, progressive path that leads to a summit, and then you can say, “I'm there.” Rather, it is better to describe it is a spiral path that continues to lead us deeper and deeper into the center of the Mystery of who we truly are. And at each step along the way, there is a fullness that we are invited to fathom and relish.
So, whatever stage we may be in our journey of life, we are called simply to BE THERE, and not just keep looking ahead to the next steps in a way that we miss living the fullness of where we are. If you are a teenager, you may sometimes think, “ah, wouldn't it be good to be a grown-up so I can do things on my own, and not be hampered by these rules,” and so on. You may be looking forward to the time when you are already beyond the control of your parents, with your own job, your own apartment, so you can do whatever we want and not have to ask permission from adults all the time. But if you go on living with that kind of wishful expectation about what is yet to come when you turn 21, then you miss the fun of being a teenager. Or if you are in our twenties, a time when you may be at the height of your physical abilities, and full of possibilities about what you can do with your life, and at the same time with its uncertainties, you may sometimes tend to wish you were already in your 30s so you could be a little more stable and see things more clearly. In short, if we keep on taking wherever we are at only a stage to the next one, then we are missing the fullness of what that particular stage has to offer.
At this point I will focus on the 2nd stage, where we see traces of the ox all over the place. Or it may be perhaps even just one or two places. And yet, we see that that trace, that hunch, that aroma, is enough to give us the confidence that we are in the right place, and the ox itself may appear to us any moment as we stay right there.
With that in the background, let me offer a few other preliminary comments to launch us into tasting of this second of the Zen oxherding pictures.
The 1st picture depicts the beginning of the search. This is the first stage of awakening from a life in the world of phenomena whereby we are simply driven along by our natural instincts. Here we live our life impelled by basic drives for pleasure and for power. We may also live life in the fulfillment of duty. These, incidentally, are the first of the three human wants as described in the Hindu tradition: pleasure ( kama ), power ( artha ), and duty ( dharma ).
In the midst of this, we come to a point where we realize that there must be something more to life, and thus begin to ask fundamental questions about the way we live our own life, about ourselves, about the world. Such questions may lead us to seek a spiritual path, and inspire us to set aside certain things that we realize are not that important for us in order to devote more of ourselves to that spiritual search. Such questioning calls for an internal shift in our priorities in life. That is the first stage when we awaken to the fact that there must be something more to life than what meets the eye.
Now, as we begin to take steps along that path, we begin to see indications that confirm us in this direction we have taken. The second picture already presupposes that we have embarked on a spiritual path. You are already convinced that there is something more to life than just material pursuits or pursuit of power, or even the pursuit of duty. You have already experienced the seeds of awakening, called bodhicitta , the heart or the mind that impels us to go further, “to Infinity and beyond,” quoting from Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story . So, with that, we are clear that there is something we need to do to go on seeking. For some of us, it may mean joining a community of spiritual practice, so you look in the yellow pages or on the internet for centers that offer spiritual retreats or guidance in meditative or contemplative practice. Taking our very community here at Maria Kannon Zen Center as an example, you may be with us now sitting together for a few months or maybe a few years, so you are now somehow committed to pursuing in this path with the support of the practice community. And so what this 2nd stage tells us is that we are able to receive certain indications, or intimations, that we are on the right path. This is not just because somebody told us, but from our very own experience, somehow something tells us, this is it, this is where I want to be and this is how I want to proceed with my life, that is, in continuing this spiritual practice. We get certain glimpses that confirm us in our practice, and draw us on to go deeper into it.
How can we describe those inner glimpses of confirmation? It could happen during an ordinary sit with the community. You are just sitting there, trying to calm your mind and as you breathe in and as you breathe out, then continuing with the normal struggles of trying to put your mind in place “Oh, there it goes again,” and then you go back to your breath. Right then and there, and it could be in a matter of even just a second or two, you are just there, breathing, and somehow, you experience a moment of total stillness. In that brief moment, your whole perspective shifts. You now know that that stillness is possible, because you have touched it and experienced it, or perhaps better, it has touched you.
I remember an occasion in Japan, where a Catholic nun from the Sacred Heart High School invited me to guide a retreat for the graduating class, she said, as her “graduation gift” to them. (This Catholic nun, by the way, was herself a Zen practitioner at that time, and is now an authorized Zen teacher in our Sanbo Kyodan lineage.) What a graduation gift indeed. Oh, poor students, I thought then, and could not help but smile with some tinge of irony. It was this resourceful nun's way of giving her teenaged students a form of training toward disciplining themselves, which could be useful for them as they prepare to go to college and as they find their way to their young adulthood. In Japan, that is not a big deal because the society itself is built on a lot of structures that help in that kind of discipline. Maybe, it is disintegrating now but there is a sense of respect for tradition and a sense of treading a beaten path wherein one simply needs to follow where others have gone. So there were about 40 or 50 high school students who gathered together in a big zendo in Japan that we were allowed to use for the weekend. They were kind of in awe at being able to make a Zen retreat. They were not forced into it, since they were given other options, like a more “traditional” kind of preached retreat, but they chose to make the weekend Zen retreat.
During that retreat, I gave introductory talks explaining the basics of posture, breathing, and stilling the mind, trying to encourage them and soothe their struggles with aching legs and aching back, with the mind wandering all over the place, thinking, “how many more minutes until that darn bell rings?” and so on. In my talks I emphasized keeping their attention on the here and now, and especially while sitting, counting the breath with each exhalation. At the end of the retreat, at the final session on Sunday afternoon, we were now seated together around the zen hall taking tea, sharing impressions and reflections, before we were to depart for home. We went around the circle one by one, and each one described how the retreat was for them. One of the retreatants who related that she really took the instructions to heart as she was told, that is, just count with your outbreath from one to ten, so One with the outbreath, slowly and then breathing in again, breathing out Two, slowly and so forth. Although she reported having the same struggles that everybody was having, aching legs and back, wandering mind, and so on, at some point, she related, just counting with each breath, “I suddenly was just one with number Three! Of all the things that happened during the retreat, the one moment that stands out right now for me is that at that moment, I became one with number Three!” That is how she described it. Just that: one with number Three. She just “tasted” being number Three. By number four perhaps, she was lost again in new distractions, but yet that moment of being one with the number three stood out for her in a way that gave her a sense of what this practice is all about.
The refreshing news of that is that she continued to communicate with me every now and then even after graduation, even after she got married and had children, telling me of how her life went on to unfold further since that graduation retreat. So somehow, it seems that that single moment, of becoming “one with number Three,” made an impact in her life, and from that point on she wanted to really let herself live from that perspective of that little moment that she saw, from the perspective of that stillness she experienced at the retreat. And so, she continued on a spiritual path, having tasted what it can be in that single moment.
Many of us may be here because of some similar intimation in our early life. We may have been children when something struck us and from that moment on, we knew that there was something more to life than just these phenomenal things that many of our contemporaries are enchant by. And so, with that then, that kind of touch, that kind encounter even with just a trace of the ox, will not leave us for the rest of our life, and can empower us to continue firmly along the way.
Of course, we can always be swayed by other distractions and by other thorns and thickets, and therefore get exasperated and set this practice aside. But it remains within us continuing to tug us from within. From a Christian perspective, there is this poem called The Hound of Heaven, where the “hound of heaven” is an analogy for that which pursues us wherever we are, drawing us back to come home, enticing us back to where our hearts will really find peace and joy. We, in our own immaturity or in own folly, seek different kinds of consolation, seek distraction, and seek all kinds of titillations and so forth, but somehow, when we come back to our right senses, there is something that draws us back saying, “Look, there is something in you bigger than that measly crumb you are holding on to.” “There is something more to your life than just those paltry pursuits. Listen well!”
With this, I am reminded of a very entertaining as well as enlightening film that I'd like to recommend, called Enlightenment Guaranteed . This is a film by the well known German director, Doris Dorre, about two brothers who experienced struggles in their life in Germany, one is in the corporate world, the other an artist, I recall. Seeking “something completely different” than their despondent ways of living life in their own country, they are drawn to come to Japan to do Zen. This film is about their experiences as they make this journey, and much of it is really so hilarious, but also deals with a serious theme. We may be able to identify with some of the things that happen from your own experience of Zen practice. The message that comes out of seeing this film is that for many people, what the practice of zen meditation leads to is not so much a distinctive moment when one can say, “Wow, now I'm enlightened.” It is not that kind of thing that you can put on your lapel and say, “now I have it,” as opposed to “not having it.” The second part of the title, “guaranteed,” is the point of emphasis here. Now that you have found yourself on the path, you are now guaranteed to be precisely on the path to enlightenment. Traces of the ox will be seen along your way, in different forms, if you are paying attention. I guarantee it, as the TV commercial for men's clothing goes.
I have a couple of other suggestions to offer. Once we have received those “intimations of infinity” in our lives that I have described earlier, it will never let us go, and it will continue to draw us back. So it is now up to us to see to it that we give ourselves the proper conditions so that this can be cultivated and given ample room to grow, and deepen. If we are fully attentive and pursue the path with care, at some point, we may be able to see not just a trace, but the ox itself. And what does sighting the ox involve for us? That is the topic of Picture Number Three, but not something that is irrelevant to number two. It is simply a realization that there is really nothing “out there” to look for. It is the realization that we are already in the midst of that which we are looking for. So, to put it in terms of seeing the traces, there are traces everywhere such that the ox itself is already smiling at us. “Look, it's right here! I'm here!”
We are seeing those as traces but in fact, if the veils of our eyes were uncovered, we will see that those traces are the ox itself, smiling at us. So, where are those traces to be found? The only thing I can say here is this: Open your heart, open your eyes, open your ears! Clap! How about the color of that wall, or what about that sound that you are hearing, or how about the train that comes every now and then as we sit here shaking the entire building? These are very very obvious traces of the ox for those with true eyes to see and ears to hear. Those traces themselves already are trying to show us that the ox is smiling at us, right here, but we are blocked from seeing, with the delusive thought that there is something in here called the “true self” wanting to realize itself, or that there is something “out there” that I have yet to realize.
A condition for us to be able to let that ox be manifest in its fullness is to let go of this notion of the “I, me, mine,” here trying to get enlightened, or trying to find that ox. So, let us just immerse ourselves in to whatever we are doing or whatever we are stationed, namely as we sit breathing in and breathing out, just lose yourself in breathing in and breathing out. Just be that, and if I may use words to point to something very important, that is all ! Just be there where you are, breathing in and breathing out. And by “all” I mean, not a self-contained entity that I refer to as “all,” but to utter some more verbiage that may risk just confusing you more, really, it is “all that there is, that is most intimate to me right here, right now.” The trace is showing us the reality of what is .
But before I reveal too much, I would like to just mention another very important thing that can happen, for us to see traces. Sometimes, we may experience what psychologists call a “peak experience” that can occur in a variety of ways. That experience can then become a highlight in our entire life, a landmark that we can keep returning to and be grateful for. As we cherish such experiences, there is also tendency for us to hold on to them, saying to ourselves, “This particular place is where I had such a precious experience, so I want to stay here, and set up an altar to commemorate it.” We may experience something holy and profound when we are out somewhere in the natural world, in the woods, in the mountains, somewhere near a lake—an experience that moves us, so now we want to enshrine the place and build a landmark there in cement. We want to light incense before that shrine we have built at that particular location, setting it apart as a special place, different from other places. We tend to want to put our little experiences of the holy into some kind of frame that we can mount on our wall and show it proudly to others. We have a tendency to want to frame precious pictures, or cling to memories of good things, putting them on an altar in our mind, and we always want to come back to them or recapture them, saying, “Oh, I wish I could have it again.”
Our Zen practice tells us that those experiences that come along the way, those “droppings from the ox” are not to be clung to or held up and framed on our wall. They are to be regarded merely as pointers to that elusive reality of the ox, inviting us to keep our eyes and ears open so that we may see the ox itself, rather than be left with the droppings. These traces of the ox that we find need to be cleaned out, and we need to continue polishing the mirror of our mind so it can be more transparent, and be more able to reflect what truly is there before us. We are enjoined not to keep holding on to those little experiences that come our way, lest our mind be too preoccupied with them and thereby miss the ox right in front of us.
I conclude this set of comments on the second of the oxherding pictures by noting that the expectation of the sighting itself maybe what maybe throwing us off. We may be thinking, “Why don't I get it yet?” There are these traces all over the place, and we experience these moments of stillness and consolation, and so forth. So we get excited, thinking, “I'm almost there, I'm almost there.” But it is that thought itself that may be deflecting us from realizing the fact that we are already there .
So, the only thing I can offer by way of recommendation here is this: Just recall three components of Zen practice, and take them to heart. From the orientation talks we offer to those beginning this practice, we note that there are three basic elements that we need to keep in place as we sit in Zen: Great Trust, Great Doubt, and Great Resolve. What I would like to emphasize at this point is, that first, namely, the Great Trust that you have everything you could ever want or need right there where you are. Your Buddha nature, and for those of you who are Christian, what you may call your Christ nature, that capacity within you and in all sentient beings to realize the Infinite, is already there to the fullest in everything you are and in everything you do, and there is nothing more that you need to look for. But yet at the same time, we can't help it but be confronted with that Great Doubt. “But why can't I experience it yet?” This Great Doubt thus generates that Great Resolve, that is, to give everything we have to get to the bottom of it.
So let those three components be activated, but most of all, cultivate that Great Trust. There is nothing more to realize than just this. With that, we are freed of that sense of separateness that is caused by that yearning for “something else” that we think we don't yet have. Just take each thing as it comes, each breath, each step and be there fully. Let go of that self that is trying so hard to be enlightened. Let go of that self that is trying to “get something” out of all this effort and this assiduous practice. Just taste the exquisiteness of each moment as it comes, whether you are sitting, standing, walking, eating, and so on. As you take each moment for what it is, just as it is , you may be surprised by what is right there .
Oxherding Picture 3: Seeing the Ox
By way of preparation for this third picture, let me give a summary of what has been covered before. The first picture depicted the launching of the search in an individual's spiritual journey. It marks that time in life when you begin to suspect that there should be something more to life that what you deal with on a day to day basis. This can be when something that jolts you comes into your horizon, shaking your foundations. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be the own confrontation with your own mortality, more concretely, the realization that I am going to die , conveyed to you through an illness or an accident or uncanny premonition. It could be something out of the blue, that makes you realize that there is something more than meets the eye in our day to day life. So you begin ask the big questions, and seek out books and articles on spirituality and religion, or start talking to close friends and confidants about such matters. Going one step further, you be led to join a group engaged in some form of meditative or contemplative practice.
The second picture describes the stage when one begins to receive inklings of a deeper reality than this humdrum existence. I recall the poem by Wordsworth entitled “Ode to Intimations of Immortality,” which describes a time
“…when meadow, grove, and stream,
the earth, and every common sight,
to me did seem
apparell'd in celestial light...”
Needless to say, this is not yet the decisive and transformative experience that the Zen tradition calls “seeing into one's true nature” ( kensho ), but can be regarded precisely as “intimations” of that Infinite realm that we will be referring to later. This can come to one engaged in a sustained practice of sitting in Zen, who now begins to taste the fruits of this practice: being more centered in one's daily life, being more aware of the wondrous little things that come into view from day to day, being more able to “smell the flowers along the way,” so to speak. At this stage you may be experiencing consoling thoughts, receiving significant insights about being connected to all, finding a deeper sense of harmony with one's surroundings and with one's fellow beings, and so on. All this confirms that you are on the right path, and are inspired to go more deeply into it.
In this connection someone who comes to mind is Satomi Myodo, a Japanese woman who was married, had two children, and in midlife received the Zen guidance of Yasutani Roshi, becoming a Buddhist nun. Her story is found in a book in English under the title Passionate Journey , translated from the Japanese by Sallie King. She recounts an experience as a young woman, pregnant and unmarried, having returned from Tokyo to be with her parents in their farm. As she was with her father working in a field, her father beckoned her to stop and look at a tiny winged ant making its way up a single weed. She describes what she saw at that moment in this way:
“I saw the grass and trees, the hills, river, fields and stones, the hoe and sickle, the birds and dogs, the roofs and windows—all shining brightly under the same sun. For me it was a wonderful breath of fresh air. Both the animate and the inanimate were vividly alive, familiarly addressing me and waving their hands. Struck by the unearthly exquisiteness of this world, I broke into tears and lifted up my face, weeping, in ecstasy. (p.9)
I cite Satomi Myodo's account of this experience to make the note that many of us may have experiences of a similar nature, whether we have already formally in the practice of Zen or not at all. Such “uncanny” experiences may have visited us as a child growing up, beholding the wonder of the world of nature, or perhaps in our youth or adult years, as we are thrown off our usual routine of things and are given a “close brush with the Infinite” in the midst of something very ordinary, like stopping on a hike to catch our breath, or leisurely looking at a starry sky at night, or patting our dog gently. But we must not confuse these experiences with what is called kensho in Zen. They may be a prelude to it, or as indicators that we are not far from it at all. But these “close brushes” need to be distinguished from the transformative experience that actually seeing our true nature is all about.
This is the experience depicted in the third picture in the series, referred to as the sighting of the ox. This time, you know that the ox is really there because now you see it for yourself. It's no longer just a matter of believing that “the ox is somewhere there” and that you need to seek for the ox because others have told that they have seen it, or because others whom you trust have told you that there is an ox. Now that darn ox appears right there before your very eyes.
Going back to Satomi Myodo, it was to take her many more years after that initial intimation of the Infinite, having gotten married, giving birth to two daughters, having been abandoned by her husband and losing one daughter, experiencing a nervous breakdown, and then recovering, and then at midlife entering into the formal practice of Zen under an authentic teacher, to be able to arrive at the decisive experience that turned the her world upside down. Describing this experience that gave her immense joy and freedom, she composed the following verse:
Dew drops, even dust—
Nothing is unclean.
The own-nature is pure. The own-nature is pure.
Kami and Buddha,
I've searched for you everywhere.
But you are here, you are here! (p.76)
Reading accounts of individuals who have traversed this path of practice and have arrived at that much-heralded point of “seeing into one's true nature” (“own-nature” in the translation above) may encourage us and convey to us that we too are not far from it. The Three Pillars of Zen , edited by Philip Kapleau through the cooperation of Yamada Koun Roshi, includes a section of such accounts of individuals who came under the guidance of Yasutani Roshi. However, reading such things can also have the opposite effect of discouraging us, saying, “Oh, no, this can never happen in my case.” If this is how you are feeling at this point, my recommendation is for you to just forget about such stories and get back to your breath, and just be there in the present moment, where you are right now. And let me tell you, plainly and simply: it's right there!
If these words manage to hit the target and trigger an experience, stop reading this, call your Zen teacher and make an appointment for dokusan, and take it from there.
If not, then you may go on reading. But please take note that this third picture is referring only the sighting of the ox. You now know from your own experience that the ox is there , but the ox may still run away and disappear from your sight. This is because that initial sighting can recede into a simple memory or even “degenerate” into a mere idea or concept or philosophical notion, of “nonduality of absolute and relative” or “emptiness of all form” and or what have you. Or it can remain clouded with some doubt in your own mind, and you ask yourself, “Was that really the ox I was looking for, or was it something else? Or was it only a dream of an ox that I now remember vaguely?” And so it can regress to that level of a concept or memory or can be clouded in uncertainty, if we do not continue to polish the mirror of our mind, or if we do not continue to be alert and pay attention to that ox that is always there before our very eyes.
To express this in Christian terms, we may have been touched by the Infinite and Loving God in unmediated encounter at some point in our life, in a way that is clear and unmistakable to us at that moment when it did happen. But in the aftermath, our insecure ego keeps trying to recapture that experience, wanting to frame it in our own terms. Having had the experience even make us feel “special” and “set apart” from others because of that precious gift we may have received, an “epiphany of the divine.” But precisely in doing so, the experience has now been downgraded into a mere memory of it, in a way that can bloat our insecure ego even more. We think we have an idea or notion about what God must be like, and so on, that we try to put it in conceptual language in the best way we can. And as we do so, the ox has now vanished from our immediate sight again, replaced only by a mental picture of it.
The initial sighting can be experienced by many persons in various kinds of circumstances, but it one needs to continually polish one's mind's eye if it is not to regress into a mere idea or memory or a hazy image that can be coupled with a lot of delusions or connected with misleading notions. And so, sustained Zen practice what enables one to be always alert and able to keep that ox clearly in sight.
The fourth and the succeeding pictures describe stages of our journey whereby we become more familiar and intimate with the ox, bringing it home, making it part of our own household, and so on. The main point I wanted to convey in describing this initial experience of seeing the ox is that it is not the be-all and end-all of Zen practice, as some literature may have us believe. It needs to be continually nurtured, through ongoing assiduous practice of sitting in stillness and coming back to the awareness of the here and now in paying attention to the breath. Now, if we maintain this stance of being alert and being totally present in our day to day life, the ox will be there in clearer view, and will not recede into such a mere concept or memory. Instead, it will continue to shed light on everything we think, say and do, and will continue to be an integral feature of who we are.
This initial experience of sighting the ox then can be a veritable turning point in one's life. As I noted earlier, in The Three Pillars of Zen , there is a section devoted to accounts of individuals who have seen the ox, in what context and life circumstance they were when they saw it. The account of Yamada Roshi himself is included, in the section marked as “Japanese executive, age 47.” You may take a look at those accounts to give yourself a mental picture of what kinds of things happen in “seeing the ox.” At another time I would like to share a little more of my own experience.
It need not come only to those engaged in formal Zen practice. Many people might have had something like this early on, in childhood, or other stages of life, and some have recounted such experiences to me. It may come to one even without an explicit intent of looking for it, but just out of the blue. In a teisho I recall given at San-un Zendo in Kamakura, Yamada Roshi related the story of Japanese woman in her 60s who was in a hospital bed, in terrible pain, and unable to sleep, she could just heard the sound of the clock, tick tock tick tock, all through the night. As she recounted it, she just disappeared in the “ticktock, ticktock,” and that experience was later confirmed by a Zen master as genuine kensho .
This experience is not something that any one religious group can claim to have a monopoly on. Another example that comes to mind is Fr. Hugo Enomiya LaSalle, who had received guidance in Zen from Harada Daiun (Sogaku) Roshi as early as 1930s. He had continued practice on his own for many years, and then was inspired to come to Yamaha Roshi in the 1960s, and was confirmed in his own kensho experience in the early 70s. In a talk soon after confirming Fr. LaSalle's experience, Yamada Roshi noted that this was not the first time Fr. Lassalle had “seen the ox” but had had such “sightings” many years back in his life as a Jesuit. Fr. Lasalle himself then responded by recalling his own experience as a young man, seeking God in one's life, and wishing to do only what God willed for him in his life. This attitude is what predisposed him to the experience of God's presence in his life. Those who knew him and worked with him through the years can confirm that he was a godly man indeed, marked by deep humility and openness, and you could tell that this was a person whose center of life was not himself, but God. It was only in the last dozen or so years of his life, through Yamada Roshi's astute guiding hand, that his earlier experiences were formally recognized from a Zen perspective.
In the Miscellaneous Koans given in our Sanbo Kyodan lineage for those who have been confirmed as having had “sighting of the ox,” a glimpse of that world that the Heart Sutra refers to in saying “Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness no other than Form,” the following reminder is given: “Attaining the Way, Realizing the Mind, is just putting your head through the gate.” Now you are invited to open the gate further, come in, and reclaim the vast and infinite territory that opens out before you.